Mud Girl is Clearly Great

Mud Girl

By: Alison Acheson

Coteau Books, 2006, 315 pp, Trade paperback $12.95 CDN

Reviewed by: James Onusko

Mud Girl is a sophisticated and very well written novel that speaks to young readers as equals rather than at them as lessers. Acheson’s writing style is playful, yet powerful. The book moves along at a brisk pace, but it is written with both tenderness and great care. All readers will be able to identify with the confusion and conflict that the main character experiences throughout the novel.

Alison Acheson is a Creative Writing instructor at the University of British Columbia. She holds two degrees from UBC and is a native British Columbian. Apart from instructing at UBC, she teaches online, and offers editorial services to other writers. She has written several books aimed at young readers. She was born in Tsawwassen, British Columbia and continues to live in the lower mainland.

Mud Girl centres on Aba Zytka Jones (Abi), and a summer in which she experiences a series of twists and turns in her life. Abi lives in a small house, right at the edge of the Fraser River; in fact the house is right on the water. Place has great meaning throughout the book and often reflects the way that Abi feels as an outsider in most situations. Her mom has left the family and her dad, in an emotional sense, has abdicated his role as a father to sixteen-year-old Abi following the departure. The family is receiving food from the food bank and her father is collecting welfare, despite indications that he is intelligent and capable of being an excellent worker. Abi is seeing someone casually, Jude, who is a single father, struggling with unwanted fatherhood, full-time employment, and attempting to care for his ailing mother. Amanda, an acquaintance of Jude, befriends Abi. Amanda is both a stabilizing and comforting force in Abi’s challenging life. Amanda owns a small cleaning business and Abi begins working for her as the story progresses. Other characters are significant in the book and among other things, serve to provide context for preceding action to this particular summer.

In this excerpt, Abi is introduced to Amanda’s van that also illustrates some of the profound differences between Abi’s family and Amanda’s, more ‘normal’ family life.

Abi peeks into the back window. Everything’s in there.

“Yep, fully camperized,” Amanda says with a grin as she opens the passenger door. “It’s my mum and dad’s.”

 “Your Mum and Dad’s?” The phrase rolls off Abi’s tongue. Does anyone have a Mum-and-Dad? Not a mum or dad, but a Mum-and-Dad?

 “Yep.” Amanda closes the door after her. Abi waves to Ernestine, who stands nearby, clutching her knitting bag to her belly. She does have a funnily round little tummy, Abi notices. Abi waves back.

 “You live with your Mum-and-Dad? she asks Amanda as she plops into the driver’s seat.

“Oh, yeah. They’re the best, my folks.”

 Funny to hear that warmth in her voice. Makes Abi feel even colder somehow.

 “We’ve done a lot of camping in this.” She motions to the back, to the miniature stove and sink, the icebox with the Mac-tac front, the nubbly plaid seat cushions with the foam showing through at the corners.

 “You and your Mum-and-Dad? Abi asks. She just wants to hear those words from her own mouth, but if her tone is different, Amanda doesn’t seem to notice.

 “My brother too,” she adds.

 Abi looks at her as she drives. She’s checking her side mirror, changing lanes, all thought on the road. Does she have any idea how lucky she is?

Acheson explores complex themes of family, friendship, young love, loss, and the dilemma of difficult choice. Abi is forced to deal with situations that many would hope that sixteen-year-olds would be free from until many years later, if ever at all. Acheson does not spare the reader from exposure to the ‘grown-up’ choices that teenagers almost universally experience. Nothing is glossed over and readers cannot help but be impressed with the maturity of Abi – she has an inner strength that serves to inspire and induce

I did not find much to quibble with in Acheson’s superb novel. One point is that Abi, at times, does seem nearly superhuman in her abilities to navigate the circumstances that she faces. While she has some amazing support from a few characters in the book, there are moments where she seems too mature for what she is dealing with at more than one part of the novel. Additionally, there is at least one storyline that seems superfluous to the main narrative arc; so much so that it is distracting at points, and may leave some readers wondering why the author spends so much time on these characters and their stories. I do want to emphasize that these are relatively minor in the overall effects of this fine book – it should in no way make prospective readers leery of diving into Mud Girl.

 Mud Girl is highly recommended and will be enjoyed by both novice and advanced juvenile readers. Many adult readers will likely find much to enjoy in Acheson’s book. I am confident that readers will enjoy this book as much as I have.

*A copy of Mud Girl was sent to me to read and review by Coteau Books. It was not purchased.

New Column With Canadian Interviews

My first column has been posted in the Politics section of the online magazine, Canadian Interviews. This month I write about political entertainment programming in North America. I offer some suggestions on how the Canadian programming could be improved to better serve Canadian youth. Take some time to explore this wonderful magazine which features thought-provoking interviews with Canadians from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Hilarious, Poignant, & Controlled Chaos

Lenny Bruce Is Dead

By: Jonathan Goldstein

New Foreword by Ira Glass in Updated Edition

Coach House Books, Sep. 2010, 144 pp, Paperback $18.95 CDN.

Reviewed by: James Onusko

If you prefer to read books defined by broad, overarching narratives and extended, complex character sketches, then there is no need to open the first page of Jonathan Goldstein’s brilliant Lenny Bruce is Dead. If, on the other hand, you prefer discombobulation, occasional insanity, and embracing being completely lost while reading, at certain turns, then open this newest edition with relish. Goldstein’s book is brilliant, evocative and filled with humour. It is a cliff dive that will leave you breathless if you decide to take the plunge – something that I highly recommend.

Jonathan Goldstein is the host of CBC’s WireTap and Lenny Bruce Is Dead was first published in 2001. Goldstein was born in Brooklyn, NY and later moved to Montreal. He holds degrees from McGill and Concordia universities. His Concordia degree is an MA in Creative Writing. He lives in Montreal.

The book is challenging to read on many levels. The writing is highly visual and the style is staccato-like with no real chapter structures. In many ways, it reads like an extended series of snapshots that have been scattered across a huge living room. At times, two or three pictures come together to impart some coherent meaning, at other moments, it seems like the images have been plucked from random parts of the room from apparently unrelated moments. Readers have to trust Goldstein and simply lose themselves as they read the novel; from my reading, one could turn oneself inside out if seeking complete coherence when reading it. I would argue that Goldstein is asking us to question what we read at all times, to recognize and celebrate the ephemeral nature of memory – its imperfections and randomness are defining, dizzying and fabulous. Additionally, Josh’s sexual fantasies border on the macabre in certain scenes – the easily offended may think of groping for the Emergency Exit at times – do not do so.

There are some recurring themes and topics in the book with Goldstein focusing on Josh’s series of warped relationships with women, his deceased mother and drifting father, his uninspiring job at the Burger Zoo and his ongoing conversations with friends about religion and the metaphysical.

In the following excerpt, Goldstein describes a break-up scene following one of Josh’s many failed relationships:

‘I didn’t say you were a fucking idiot,’ Josh said. ‘I said you were like a fucking idiot.’

 Kay was cleaning outside his room of all of her things. She was a methodical blonde Zamboni.

After she left he saw a shimmering ring of celestial light in the middle of the double parlour, and when he stepped through it he was in the bathroom of his childhood house. He was crying on the floor, pulling toilet paper off the spool with both hands like he was climbing a rope.


In this second excerpt, Goldstein explores aspects of  Josh’s girlfriend’s younger years:

Honey went to this horrible daycare where they never let her change out of her wet bathing suit. Her mother sent her there each day with just a thermos full of coffee. He imagined her tap dancing around the play mat for all the boys, never seeing the fat woman in the black polyester pants who wanted to set her straight. She was dancing the way she did at home on the kitchen table. The fat woman had a handful of slaps for her since the day she first saw her.

Some readers may find the novel too much work. If you read this book and attempt to map some type of linear path, you will be disappointed and frustrated. While that is why I argue it should be lauded, for some, this will be the main area of attack. Some readers simply do not like to be pushed and prodded to work and think as they read – if you are seeking an intellectual and emotional vacation in your next read, don’t pick up this book.

Lenny Bruce Is Dead is an original and stimulating novel. It can be read in a few hours and as long as you approach it with an open and willing mindset, you will not come away disappointed. It is suitable for older teenagers and ‘mature’ adult readers. Think of Goldstein as another gifted Montreal writer Mordecai Richler, on speed, and the novel will make much more sense. We can only hope that Goldstein continues to offer up further efforts with as much panache, creativity and darkened humour as his debut novel roars with on every page.

*A copy of Lenny Bruce Is Dead was sent to me to read and review by Coach House Books. It was not purchased.