Friday, December 30, 2005

SNOW by Orhan Pamuk

IMPAC-award-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's most recent novel chronicles the life of Ka, an exiled poet, who returns to his native land. Over the course of four days, Ka travels to the forlorn town of Kars to report on a wave of suicides among religious girls forbidden to wear their head scarves. There Ka is reunited with a former university friend, the recently-divorced and radiant Ipek.

"Amid blanketing snowfall and universal suspicion, Ka finds himself pursued by figures ranging from Ipek's ex-husband to a charismatic terrorist called Blue...A theatrical evening climaxes in a massacre. And finding God may be a prelude to losing everything else...SNOW is of immense relevance to our present moment."

John Updike remarks that this novel is "a major work...conscience ridden and carefully wrought...Pamuk is Turkey's most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize."

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


On a brutally cold night at the end of November in 1990, 17-year-old Neil Stonechild went missing just blocks from his mother Stella's downtown Saskatoon home. Five days later his frozen body was found several kilometers outside of town. A cursory police investigation neglected the obvious trauma to Stonechild's face and wrists, and the curious fact that he was missing a shoe.

STARLIGHT TOUR, written by two veteran CBC producers, is an engrossing tale of cops, racism, and a native urban legend coming horrifyingly true.

Stylistically modelled after Truman Capote's haunting IN COLD BLOOD, this exploration of the last lonely night of Neil Stonechild is a must read. It paints " a damning portrait of obstruction of justice and justice denied, not only to a boy and his grieving mother, but to an entire country's aboriginal community."

Monday, December 26, 2005

700 Sundays by Billy Crystal

When Crystal's father Jack died unexpectedly of a heart attack when Crystal was only 15, Crystal estimated that they'd shared 700 Sundays together. This conceit frames the memoir as well as the Tony-Award-winning one-man show that Crystal continues to perform across North America.

I didn't realize that the family was at the heart of the Commodore label in NYC that cut early records of now jazz legends Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong. Crystal even saw the movie SHANE with the iconic Ms. Holiday who shouted at the screen "He ain't never comin' back" when another child in the audience implored, "Come back, Shane. Come back."

One of my favourite moments happens between Billy and his grandfather Julius who tells him, "Time's a bastard, Billy. When you're sad, there's too much of it and when you're happy, there's never enough."

Treat yourself to this gem.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Janette Turner Hospital's most recent novel is chilling. In a post-911 world she examines issues of paranoia, security and trust. Her protagonists are all connected to a doomed Air France flight that is hi-jacked by a fundamentalist sect. They are either child survivors or relatives to those who perished during the hostage-taking.

What was extraordinary to me were the confessions that each of the hostages made about the nature of love and passion before they accepted their individual fates of sure and painful death by inhaling the toxic substances pumped into the room where they were collectively imprisoned.

Turner Hospital knows how to get to the heart of what matters and tells a compelling tale in the process.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


I started reading Didion's memoir around 10:30 last night and stayed up until I finished it at 2:30 this morning. She begins by suggesting that "life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant." And, anyone, who has experienced an unexpected death in their life will nod in agreement. Didion's world changed on December 30, 2003 when her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a "massive coronary event" at the dinner table in their New York apartment.

What compelled me to continue reading in addition to my own experience with the ongoing grief journey was Didion's "cool customer" approach to retelling the emotional upheaval of the first year of new loss. Hers was complicated by the fact that her only child, Quintana, was in a coma at the same time. Unthinkable timing.

As Didion soldiers on to accommodate the loss in her life she offers the following sage advice: "...if we are to live ourselves, there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

CUTTY, ONE ROCK by August Kleinzahler

As one of the blurbs on the back of this memoir attests, "this is a beautiful book-- mournful, swaggering, bleak, hilarious-- full of piercing and often loving assessments of life and art." What moved me most was the title piece about Kleinzahler's doomed and big-hearted brother, which reminded me of my own brother who died young in 1994.

Eerily, I find myself in Kleinzahler's description of his own teenaged self and how he related to his only brother as I did mine: "I couldn't have made for very thrilling company. But he always acted glad to see me...'You'll be all right,' he'd say smiling. 'Let's go out and see if we can't find ourselves a drink.' I miss having someone like that in my life. I miss it like a limb."

And I still do.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

GLENN by David Young

This play by Toronto playwright David Young explores the aspects of Gould's intriguing personality which he scripts as the Prodigy, Performer, Perfectionist and Puritan. Each character manages to play independently yet paradoxically be utterly entwined, since the conceit of the play is that we are inside Glenn Gould's head. The clever underlying framework for the piece is Bach's "The Goldberg Variations" which made Gould an international star.


Toronto novelist Joe Fiorito's book THE SONG BENEATH THE ICE is quintessentially Canadian in theme and content. An eccentric concert pianist reminiscent of Glenn Gould goes missing after he bounds from a fundraising performance at the AGO. His close childhood friend receives a series of audiotapes and journals in the mail and is compelled to try to discover why the pianist disappeared and where he has gone.

Friday, November 04, 2005

THE WONDER SPOT by Melissa Bank

Melisaa Bank found international attention with her first book of stories called THE GIRLS GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING. In her new collection of linked stories, THE WONDER SPOT, Sophie Applebaum faces trials and tribulations in the grown-up working world of New York City advertising and publishing. For those of you who came of age in the early 1980s, Bank's new book will have particular resonance.

Friday, October 28, 2005

ALLIGATOR by Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore's first novel is as filmic as her short story collection OPEN. Her training as a visual artist is obvious in her acute attention to sensory detail. She inhabits each of the characters in ALLIGATOR with absolute credibility, which means she's as equally convincing as a teenaged eco-terrorist wannabe and as a middle-aged filmmaker ignoring heart trouble.

Nominated once again for the GILLER PRIZE for the best Canadian book of fiction in English, Lisa Moore's fresh style may turn the heads of this year's prize jury: Warren Cariou, Elizabeth Hay and Richard Wright.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

WOMAN IN BRONZE by Antanas Sileika

Set in Lithuania pre-WWI and then in Paris of the 1920s, the novel traces the progress of a young sculptor who wants to make his way among the talent in Montparnasse. It is an accurate portrayal of a spare artist's life and beautifully depicts the process of creating a bronze. You meet real people from that time including the fantastic Josephine Baker and the hugely talented Jacques Lipschitz (who had a solo show in Toronto at the AGO in 1989).

Monday, October 24, 2005


Leon Rooke's new book is a magical realist marvel of a novel. THE BEAUTIFUL WIFE is such a multi-layered treat-- part political expose of the Marcos regime in the Phillipines, part treatise on love and its pursuit. If you like the whimsy of Jasper Fforde (THE EYRE AFFAIR and LOST IN A GOOD BOOK), pick up this readerly romp penned by one of Canada's national treasures.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

26A by Diana Evans

26A by Diana Evans is also fabulous. It is her first novel. She uses magic realism to frame the story of identical twins Georgia and Bessie who live in London with their family. Evans wrote the book after her own identical twin committed suicide in 1998. She was looking for books that explored the special bond that twins have--couldn't find any, so wrote her own. This book won the Orange Prize for New Fiction.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Well, I ploughed my way through DIGITAL FORTRESS this weekend. It's formulaic like Dan Brown's other novels (ANGELS AND DEMONS and THE DA VINCI CODE) and the writing is pretty ordinary, but, boy does he know how to pace a plot and tell a story! Thanks to Frank Martin who suggested I read it in the first place. It's a little like a palate cleansing sorbet. Now I'm ready to tackle Tolstoy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Shyam Selvadurai's new novel SWIMMING IN THE MONSOON SEA explores cultural differences experienced by a Sri Lankan teenager who feels like an outsider, partially because he is orphaned and partially because he is worried about belonging at an all boys' school. His is a fresh approach to the coming of age novel tradition for YA readers.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

THE ICARUS GIRL by Helen Oyeyemi

THE ICARUS GIRL (finished by Nigerian-born Cambridge-eductated Helen Oyeyemi before her 19th birthday!) explores the split that people feel when they straddle two cultures--always outsiders. In this case, the main character Jessamy (who is 8 or 9 years old) invents a perfect companion for herself, a doppleganger of sorts, called Tilly-Tilly. Tilly-Tilly pushes Jess to behave in ways she otherwise wouldn't. I think it gestures to mental illness quite cleverly. (The myth of Icarus which lends its name to the book's title shows Icarus building wings fashioned with wax--when he flies too close to the sun, they melt and he plumets to his watery grave.) I met Helen Oyeyemi at the PEN fall benefit in October. She is charming and modest. All the more reason to read her book.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Michael Helm's recent novel IN THE PLACE OF LAST THINGS explores one man's journey after the death of his father. Russ Littlebury travels tremendous distances both geographically and psychologically in this profound story. Helm "explores the nature of violence, conversion and loss and the uneasy consolations of faith and love."

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Gibb's new novel takes place in politically unstable Ethiopia in the 70s and conservative Thatcherite London of the 80s. It is a rich cultural tale of protagonist Lilly, a white Muslim woman, who is always an outsider. Gibb recounts the horror that unfolds in Ethiopia with Haile Selassie's dethroning and the famine that envelops the country. Later, an exile in London, Lilly advocates for refugees while refusing to face truths about herself. This story of cultural displacement and assimilation rings true. SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY is short-listed for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Comic writer David Sedaris will make you weep with hysteria in this collection of anecdotes involving his mostly dysfunctional siblings. "On tap" will take on a whole new meaning.

Friday, September 09, 2005


The Dickensian storytelling of John Irving will sweep you away in this powerful story about a family in which loss is the touchstone. Celebrated novelist Ruth Cole tries to make sense of her life by trying to understand her mother's disappearance when she was only 4 years old. Marion Cole abandoned her only daughter to the care of her husband Ted (world famous children's author/illustrator) in the heighth of her grief for her dead sons. As is typical in Irving novels, A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR explores sexual perversity, loss and the healing power of the creative spirit. It is a novel that is perfectly constructed.