Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #99: The Northern Lights by Howard Norman

Sensitively and well-written “coming-of-age” story of life in the frozen lands of northern Manitoba, Canada, and yet somehow the book didn’t pull me in as I had hoped it would.  This is Norman’s debut novel, and he does a good job of conveying the ambience of small village life in the semi-wilds, and the compelling relationship between 14-year-old Noah and his best friend, the artistic and quirky Pelly.

Noah’s father is gone for long periods of time, mapping the interior of northern Canada, while his mother grits her teeth and maintains a sort of household in an old hunting lodge with Noah and Noah’s orphaned cousin Charlotte. Noah’s mother hates every moment of her isolation–and her husband for not noticing, or at least not caring—and hides her anxieties in fantasies about Noah’s ark. When things became too tense at home, Noah takes a mail plane over to Quill, 90 miles away, and stays with Pelly and his guardians, the strong silent Uncle Sam and his Cree wife Hettie. There, Noah experiences village life, gets to know the Cree culture which is partly nomadic and partly assimilated, and works at the small Hudson Pay outpost at the center of Quill’s social life.

All too soon, tragedy strikes, and Noah is left alone to deal with his tortured family life. When it becomes clear that Noah’s father isn’t coming home, his mom packs up and leaves for Toronto with Charlotte. Noah opts to stay with Sam and Hettie, partly for their sake and partly for his own, but ultimately he follows his mother to Toronto, where she has bought an old movie theater called Northern Lights.  Noah begins to put together a new life, but he is no longer the boy he once was.

The problem with this book, I feel, is that Norman’s characters are interesting but underdeveloped. We don’t know the backstories of Noah’s mother or father, or of Sam and Hettie, and why they ultimately do what they do and become who they are. Noah’s character doesn’t share what he is going through, and as we watch him move from one phase of his life to another, we are somehow left unengaged in his life and his future. When I put the book down, I stopped thinking about the story—and to me, that is not a sign of a good book that purports to be more.

loulamac’s #CBR5 review #25: The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy


This wonderful book came into my life by accident, perhaps as all truly delightful books do. I was reading an article about Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City (it’s great, give it a go, placing it in the tradition of Edith Wharton, Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy. Having included Bushnell in such hallowed company, the journalist went on to make reference to Elaine Dundy ‘whose wonderful 1958 novel, The Dud Avocado, which was set in Paris, has more than a touch of Sex and the (French) City to it.’ That was enough to pique my interest, and after a bit of Googling, I bought a second-hand copy on Amazon. Little did I know just how much of a treat I was in for.

Our heroine is Sally Jay Gorce, an American in Paris. She’s a young woman of some small means, who is having a two-year jaunt in Europe financed by an indulgent uncle. When we first meet her, she is three months in, sauntering down the Left Bank on a September morning. She’s wearing an evening dress because it’s all she’s got left (who can get to the laundry in time to pick up their clothes?), and has dyed her hair pink (it’s ‘a marvelous shade of pale red so popular with Parisian tarts that season’). Over the coming minutes, hours, days and weeks she decides she’s in love with her American ne’er do well friend Larry, ditches her married (or is he?) lover, takes the stage by storm, and high-tails it to Biarritz for the summer, where she gets a bit-part in a film financed by a famous bull-fighter. And all of this in a haze of martini hangovers and not enough sleep. It’s genius.

Apparently the book caused a bit of a stir when it was published in 1958, and I suppose I can see why. Dundy presents the semi-autobiographical adventures of Sally Jay with such charming frankness. No apology is made for her promiscuity, drunkenness, temper-tantrums, ill-advised friendships or falling out with the American consulate over a mislaid passport. I lost count of the number of times the book made me laugh out loud, even though the writing is totally straight. Every page is crammed with quotable, read-aloud lines. The description of a group of young men who fancy themselves hipsters was a particular favourite (perhaps because I work in excruciatingly trendy Hoxton):  ‘A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable’.

Sally Jay greets all of the situations she gets herself into, and the people she meets, with the same dead-pan self-absorption. Generally speaking she can barely be bothered to raise an eyebrow, and her caustic observations reveal just how bright and complicated this neurotic tram-smash is. She gets into such pickles, but always with her eyes open; she just seems unable to say no or do the sensible thing. Or doesn’t want to. She’s rarely troubled by what other people think of her, but is her own harshest critic.

If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a girl about town, or given yourself a hard time because you lost your mobile phone on a night out, woke up next to someone you shouldn’t have, or spent your rent money on shoes, this is the book for you. Or even if you haven’t, you really should give it a whirl. Sally Jay is a girl you’ll never forget.