Friday, December 28, 2007

EXIT GHOST by Philip Roth (2007)

There is no finer contemporary American novelist than Philip Roth. He won me over with THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA and has kept me going through THE HUMAN STAIN, EVERYMAN and now EXIT GHOST, the final Nathan Zuckerman novel. He writes about aging and the betrayals of the body with honesty and directness.

In EXIT GHOST, Zuckerman--entrenched in his 70s--returns to New York City to seek treatment from a urologist who offers a procedure that may save him the embarrassment of wetting himself and wearing diapers that have been a daily part of his life since his prostate surgery a few years before. By happenstance Zuckerman remeets a woman he met only in passing 40 years previously at the home of a revered novelist E.I. Lonoff. Amy Bellette buried her famous lover decades ago and is facing her own death from brain cancer.

When Zuckerman answers an ad in the paper placed by young writers who wish to house swap with someone outside of the city, he finds himself falling for Jamie, the young Harvard grad whose sexuality arouses him in a way he'd abandoned as plausible. And, her attraction enables Zuckerman to write again. "Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold."

THE MAYTREES by Annie Dillard (2007)

I've been a longtime fan of Dillard's prose since I read her memoir AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD which was charming and evocative. I was excited to pick up THE MAYTREES which received a glowing review in the Sunday NY Times. However, I found it plodding and poncy with at least a word on each page that I had to look up in the OED. Its pretense of cleverness ruined the read for me.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER by Tom Perrotta (2007)

I heard Perrotta talking about his most recent novel at Ben McNally's Books and Brunch at the King Edward last week. Perrotta was compelled to write a book wherein he could contemplate the current polemic in the USA with the rise of fundamentalism, especially post 9/11.

So, in THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER, he follows the narratives of two characters, both loving, middle-aged parents of young girls. Ruth Ramsey is the health teacher at the local high school who believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad and knowledge is power." Her daughter's soccer coach, Tim Mason, has found Jesus at the local Tabernacle under the guidance of Pastor Dennis after having hit rock bottom in a life of drug abuse and philandering. His evangelical church makes Ruth the focus of a very public crusade that leads to her redeployment in the classroom where she refuses to teach an abstinence only curriculum.

The most stable romantic relationship in the book is one between two gay men who have been together for over 15 years and are contemplating leaving their all-American suburb to begin life anew in Massachusetts, the only state in the union where it is possible for gay couples to marry.

THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER is a perfect mixture of compassion and satire and has me reaching for Perrotta's other more famous books, ELECTION and LITTLE CHILDREN. This guy knows how to write.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

GRATITUDE by Joe Kertes (forthcoming Spring 2008)

Joe Kertes captivated me with his opening scene in 1944 Hungary where 16-year-old Lili crouches behind a wardrobe in her parents' bedroom wearing the bridal dress her mother presented her with earlier in the day. As her birthday cake bakes and then burns in the stone oven downstairs, Lili considers the fates of her family--her mother hiding in the field with her younger siblings and her father off showing the new authorities the family's papers.

As German occupation closes in upon Hungary, in the months ahead over half a million Jews will have been murdered. Through terrible circumstance, Lili finds herself welcomed in to the Beck family in Budapest where she waits with the hope of being reunited with her own lost family when the occupation ends in January 1945.

GRATITUDE explores the complexities of the human psyche in its darkest hour and offers a tender portrait of a European empire's last days.

Since our theme at RSGC this year is gratitude, when this fine novel is published by Penguin Canada this spring, all of the staff and students will be reading it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

THE GATHERING by Anne Enright (2006)

I heard Anne Enright interviewed at IFOA shortly after she was awarded this year's Booker Prize for THE GATHERING. She is spunky and unforgiving in conversation, suggesting to her interviewer that "surely only an eejit would ask that about my book." I warmed to her immediately because of her directness.

THE GATHERING chronicles the days surrounding the death of Liam Hegarty, the most wayward of the Hegarty children, as told by his older sister Veronica. That the family is dysfunctional is an understatement. Veronica shepherds the mourners who gather around her younger brother's corpse laid out in the front room of her mother's house, and tries to decide whether or not to reveal an awful truth about their shared past.

These lines from the opening chapter show you the beauty of Enright's prose:

"I wait for the kind of sense that dawn makes, when you have not slept. I stay downstairs while the family breathes above me and I write it down, I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean, white bones"

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

OCTOBER by Richard B. Wright (2007)

James Hillyer, a retired Victorian Lit professor, receives an upsetting call from his only daughter Susan, a headmistress at a British boarding school. James finds an outrageously expensive next day flight out of Toronto to spend the week with Susan as she tries to make sense of her recent diagnosis.

While in London, James has a chance meeting with an irascible man named Gabriel whom he'd met one summer in the eastern townships of Quebec about sixty years previous when they were young men in the bloom of youth. Gabriel makes an unlikely proposition to his erstwhile friend and through happenstance James finds himself face to face with tender ghosts of his past.

I borrowed the book from the library earlier today and could not put it down. Wright not only explores the rapport between fathers and daughters but also our greater understanding of loss. And, he does so with kindness and a lack of judgment.

FINDING HOME by Eric Wright (2007)

Although Wright is known for his detective fiction, FINDING HOME is a departure from that as a literary novel. Will Prentice is a successful middle-aged Toronto businessman recently cuckolded by his wife of 30 years. His mother's death in England provides the impetus for him to reconnect with his remaining relatives and to refamiliarize himself with the landscape of his youth. His nephew Fred, a recent Cambridge grad with time on his hands, offers to be Will's personal guide across the English countryside.

When Will's aunt (his mother's sister) gives him old photos of his mother with an unfamiliar man, Will begins an intriguing journey through her past and discovers that she was a woman way ahead of her time.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

THE BOOK OF STANLEY by Todd Babiak (2007)

I almost put the book down when I discovered that the Stanley Moss, a retired florist, is suffering from a brain tumour since a friend of mine is slouching his way towards death with the same ailment. However, Babiak throws a curve ball early on and Stan finds himself feeling unaccountably well on his way to see his palliative care MD. So well that he's able to hurl a couple of punkish teens up against a car en route, his retributive justice delivered by hand. Who wouldn't want to believe in this kind of wish fulfillment?

Other characters who seem rife for divine intervention find themselves making a pilgrimmage to Banff where Stan himself is heading because he is compelled to go with his wife Frieda. An unlikely troupe gathers: a 24-year-old hockey player who had once dreamed of making the NHL who has tossed his last punch in front of his young daughter; a 17-year-old Muslim woman who has disappointed her family in Montreal by having sex publically with a white boy; a 30-something entertainment executive who has just survived a concrete slab falling from the sky and narrowly missing her in her Hummer; and Moss's former brother-in-law Alok, a New Age guru who believes that Stan is the new Messiah.

Somehow Babiak manages to make this dark comedy about love, death, the afterlife and sasquatches, yes sasquatches, not only plausible but desirable.

FINDING LILY by Richard Clewes (2006)

Clewes moderated a panel of male writers recently at IFOA and in spite of David Gilmour's petulance and determination to sink their collective ship of discourse, Clewes remained gracious. His good manners led me to pick up his memoir FINDING LILY which chronicles his journey after the suicide of his wife Erin.

FINDING LILY is a little piece of perfection like Calvin Trillin's ABOUT ALICE. Both men unabashedly chronicle their feelings about the women they loved and how life in the void of their deaths is changed utterly, to quote Yeats.

Unlike Trillin, Clewes decides to travel in search of self and in search of the why that culminated in Erin's death when she flung herself from her mother's balcony. Part of Clewes's journey leads him to filling sketchbooks with daily observations and mailing postcards to himself to affirm his existence.

Jim Harrison wrote that this "is an engrossing book. It is one thing when a mate dies and quite another when the reason is suicide, which calls existence into severe question. Clewes struggles, and I think, succeeds, which means he finally understands. This is the most anyone can hope for."

EXIT MUSIC by Ian Rankin (2007)

It's D.I. John Rebus's final fortnight on the force and he is relegated to the sidelines when he is in the wrong place at the wrong time and implicated in the attack on his longtime nemesis Big Ger Cafferty. Rebus's partner, Siobhan Clarke, has been put in charge of another investigation that involves the beating and subsequent murder of a Russian poet named Todorov.

Since I recently co-chaired an event here in Toronto with Ian Rankin appearing on stage with Margaret Atwood in support of PEN Canada, I was thrilled to see that Rankin had written PEN into the storyline since the visiting Russian poet is a guest of the university in Edinburgh as well as of the local PEN chapter.

Fans of Rebus will be sad to see him retire, since Rebus has aged in real time over the years Rankin has been writing him, but will not be disappointed in his final song. Rankin's powers as a storyteller continue to grow.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A QUESTION OF BLOOD by Ian Rankin (2003)

Inspector Rebus finds himself in hospital at the beginning of the novel, hands bandaged from a scalding. Unfortunately, a petty criminal who had been stalking Rebus's colleague Siobhan Clarke has been found burnt to death in his own home and witnesses saw Rebus with him earlier that night.

A horrific shooting at an Edinburgh private school in which two students are killed as well as an ex-Army loner who appears to have turned the gun on himself draws Rebus's especial attention since one of the victims, Derek Renshaw, is his cousin's son. It is a question of blood, family blood, for Rebus.

If you haven't yet read any Ian Rankin, this book is a great place to start.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

THE FILM CLUB by David Gilmour (2007)

A Governor General's Award-winning novelist for his sublime and haunting novel A PERFECT NIGHT TO GO TO CHINA, David Gilmour has penned an evocative memoir about the three years he spent watching films with his high school dropout son, Jesse. When Jesse feels defeated by school, he leaves in the 10th grade, but his father imposes the condition that they watch three films/week together. So begins one young man's alternative education that is as much about navigating loving relationships as it is about becoming literate about French New Wave cinema (led by Truffaut) or the New Hollywood Movement (following Coppola and Scorsese).

I picked THE FILM CLUB up at the library last night and devoured it in one sitting. Gilmour's candid approach and honest narrative will have you cheering for both father and son.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

WHAT HAPPENED LATER by Ray Robertson (2007)

There are two narrative threads in this gripping novel. In one, the adolescent Ray Robertson explores what it was like growing up in Chatham in the 70s and 80s, keenly aware of the limitations that social status imposed in his hardworking community wherein he dreams of following the intellectual footsteps of his idol Jim Morrison and Jim's idol Jack Kerouac. Even more convincing, however, is the novelist's reimagining of the iconic Beatnik's journey to small town Quebec to trace his Kerouac roots on the roadtrip that would hopefully lead to his sequel to ON THE ROAD that he had planned to call WHAT HAPPENED LATER.

Robertson's novel did two things for me: helped me reclaim some of the pop cultural elements of my own adolescence growing up in small town Ontario and pushed me to read Kerouac again. As a grownup.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

EFFIGY by Alissa York (2007)

Set in the mid 19th century in the American northwest on a polygamous Mormon farm, EFFIGY is a haunting story of the fourth wife to Erastus Hammer, a cruel horse-breaker who married Eudora/Dorrie for her peculiar talent as a taxidermist. It sounds loopy, but most of the narrative is heartbreaking as each of the lesser wives tries to placate the first wife who seems to run everyone as if they are part of a boot camp ordered by God.

York's prose is strong and visceral and entirely convincing. EFFIGY is longlisted for this year's Giller Prize for the best book of fiction in English published in Canada.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

THE ARCHITECTS ARE HERE by Michael Winter (2007)

I've been a fan of Winter's minimalist and filmic style since I first read his short story collection ONE LAST GOOD LOOK several years ago. I appreciate the way he blends fact/fiction so much so that every thought each character has in his stories has the ring of truth.

THE ARCHITECTS ARE HERE is a roadtrip of sorts with two childhood friends Gabriel English and David Twombley who are making their way back to Newfoundland from Toronto in a reconditioned former LAPD car to assuage their broken hearts and to discover the awful truth of what has happened to David's father, Arthur--a man who was coincidentally Gabe's girlfriend Nell's lover almost twenty years ago.

Although there are a few forced dramatic moments including drowning, a trigger happy finger, and an unintentionally abused dog, THE ARCHITECTS ARE HERE is a page turner.

LATE NIGHTS ON AIR by Elizabeth Hay (2007)

If I find myself slowing down as I'm reading a book I know that's a sure sign that I don't want it to end--I am reticent to be released from the novel's world. That is absolutely true of Elizabeth Hay's new novel LATE NIGHTS ON AIR which is set in a sleepy CBC radio station in Yellowknife where the main characters quickly transform into imaginary friends. Hay knows how to write tenderness and heartbreak and friendship better than anyone else writing today.

You will quickly come to love the irascible Harry Boyd, the beguiling Dido Paris and the irrepressible Gwen Symon, all of whom find their truest selves in the far north.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR by John Irving (1998)

About a week ago I watched the film THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR, based on this Irving novel, in which Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger give riveting performances as the grief-stricken parents Marion and Ted Cole. I had forgotten how much I enjoy Irving's quirky and flawed characters and how I am swept away by his epic storylines.

So, I went back to my bookshelf and picked up A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR which tells the story of Ruth Cole, Ted and Marion's only daughter, the summer she was four in 1958 and then in 1990 when she is thirty-six and a famously celebrated NYC novelist who has a penchant for picking unsuitable men, and then in 1995 when Ruth is a widower raising her son Graham and falling in love for the first time.

Irving inhabits landscapes in the Hamptons, Vermont, Amsterdam and Toronto in this fascinating book wherein sympathy for a murdered prostitute is a touchstone.

GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM by Ray Robertson (2005)

Hank Roberts is an over-educated, underachieving thirty-something Torontonian who loves his wife Mary, his best friend Phil, his black lab, Barry and rock and roll. When Phil's hottest female novelist girlfriend Rebecca offers Hank a job as a researcher funded by an arts council grant for her next book, Hank declines and picks up a job as a bouncer at the seedy Gladstone Hotel.

A chance encounter in the dog park after his late night shift leads to an unexpected coupling that puts all Hank values at risk. I didn't expect to be so emotionally undone by this book, but Robertson had me sobbing and reaching for a box of Kleenex well before the end.

I'm looking forward to reading his new novel about Kerouac, WHAT HAPPENED LATER, due out this fall from Thomas Allen & Sons.

Monday, September 03, 2007

POPPY SHAKESPEARE by Clare Allen (2006)

I have a subscription to THE BELIEVER magazine to read Nick Hornby's monthly column "Stuff I'm Reading" and it was there that I read about Clare Allen's debut novel. POPPY SHAKESPEARE is a rollercoaster ride through a mental hospital in North London wherein the day patients, called "dribblers" , barter meds, smoke until their throats are raw and look out for each other's well being. The narrator, N., like her fellow patients at the Dorothy Fish, has the ambition to never be discharged, so each year she is relieved to hear at her assessment that she hasn't gotten any better.

However, when Pollyanna is unexpectedly discharged and is replaced by Poppy Shakespeare who insists she's not mentally ill, N.'s world trembles and she finds herself trusting somebody else for the first time in a very long while.

Allen's diction is snappy and her narrator completely believable. POPPY SHAKESPEARE has been described as a mix of CATCH 22 and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. If you liked either one of those novels, you really ought to pick this one up.

THE LETTER OPENER by Kyo Maclear (2007)

Naiko, the narrator, works in the Undeliverable Mail Office for Canada Post where she tries to reunite people with their lost possessions and orphaned letters, a task that offers a glimpse into the lives of complete strangers. There she meets the enigmatic Andrei, a Romanian refugee with a haunting past. When he disappears from work, Naiko becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to him.

I especially enjoyed the epigraphs at the beginning of each section as well as Naiko's lists of characters's personal possessions which all gesture to the elusive nature of truth. Quotations such as "We do not remember days, we remember moments" and "Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men?" add another layer of meaning.

Try to distill your life or the life of someone you love into a handful of objects. Maclear's humanity "is an indispensable part of everything she writes. It is the basis of her commitment to history's forgotten people and its undelivered stories. Her voice is exquisite and incisive." Listen to Joy Kogawa.

STILL LIFE by Louise Penny (2004)

This is Penny's first Inspector Gamache novel set in the idyllic village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. The characters are affable and endearing and even at times believably irritating. When a beloved local is killed accidentally by a hunting arrow, the townsfolk are eager to help the Surete and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache solve the crime. Penny's strength is her character development and her ability to lead you on the trails of a variety of plausible suspects until through a process of elimination you think you know whodunnit.

THE NAMING OF THE DEAD by Ian Rankin (2006)

Set in the days surrounding the G8 summit in Edinburgh in July 2005, this next to last Rebus mystery finds the inspector temporarily discharged alongside his partner DS Siobhan Clarke as they meddle in a case about the apparent suicide of an MP at the Castle. The murder Clarke and Rebus are distracted by, however, involves a recently released rapist as a victim. Many dismiss the murder as retributive justice until Rebus and Clarke uncover evidence that leads them to believe that a serial killer is on the loose.

Because of the extra political excitement of the summit, life on the the streets of Edinburgh is raised to a fever pitch with protestors pitching in to up the ante. When Siobhan has a personal reason for getting even with a riot cop, it seems all will spin out of control and right into the hands of Gerald Cafferty, the don of organized crime.

Rankin's narrative is fast-paced and Rebus and Clarke both witty and convincing. The scene with President Bush apparently happened. Read to find out what.


Russ Littlebury leaves his settling, professional life and girlfriend in Toronto to care for his dying father back home in small town Saskatechewan. Initially torn between love and duty, Russ quickly learns to compartmentalize his life. When his father dies, Russ finds himself on an atypical roadtrip with "Skidder", his father's surrogate son, and his Aunt Jean to get Jean down to her winter home in a trailer park in Tucson. Along the way they meet some of his father's born again friends and Russ finds himself behaving true to form.

Russ's devotion to his father and self awareness make this gritty journey worth your while.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

LIPSTICK JUNGLE by Candace Bushnell (2005)

The SEX AND THE CITY guru has spun a similar tale of powerful 40-something women in this novel essentially about greed. Nico is a publishing maven having an affair with a Calvin Klein underwear model at least a decade younger than she is; Victory, a hot fashion designer dating a billionaire and Wendy a movie mogul and wannabe supermom whose handsome husband stays at home to raise the kids and spend her money on essentials like a pony from the Palm Beach Polo Club for their twelve year old daughter.

I had at least hoped for wit in LIPSTICK JUNGLE, like some of the bantering between Samantha and Miranda on the HBO series that made Bushnell a millionaire, but there was nary a guffaw.

I'm not sure I'll even bother tuning in to the upcoming tv series starring Brooke Shields to see if the screenwriters have doctored the script.

BE NEAR ME by Andrew O'Hagan (2006)

I've been a fan of O'Hagan's fiction since OUR FATHERS and quickly grabbed PERSONALITY when it was released and now BE NEAR ME which is the most sophisticated narrative of the three. It is O'Hagan's deftness with diction, dialogue and character development that makes BE NEAR ME such a compelling read.

Middle-aged RC priest Father David Anderton has a small parish in Scotland where he is viewed as an outsider, having been raised in Yorkshire and schooled at Oxford. He befriends local troublemaking teens Mark and Lisa and tries to open up their world by guiding them through unimaginable experiences (to them) like taking a boat to Ailsa Craig, a bird sanctuary beyond their ken.

Father David is haunted by his past sadness and in a daring moment of a kiss, time bends in on itself and he finds himself struggling for belief in a faithless age.

Monday, August 13, 2007

DIVISADERO by Michael Ondaatje (2007)

Anna and her foundling "twin" Claire are raised by their father alongside Coop, an orphan from a neighbouring farm in California in the 1950s. When a brutal act of violence splits the makeshift family, Anna reinvents herself and it is her story we follow primarily to the present where she is researching the life work of a French writer Lucien Segura in a rural village in the south of France. Time folds in on itself and bends backwards.

Coop[er] also skips town and becomes a talented gambler, but his life in such a fast lane is problematic. It is only Claire who seems to truly move forward in her life trajectory as an assistant to a criminal lawyer.

BIrds are everywhere in DIVISADERO, symbols of wish fulfilment and the dream of escape.

BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS by Giles Blunt (2006)

Giles Blunt's most recent Detective Cardinal mystery raises the stakes when Cardinal is called to the scene of an apparent suicide and discovers his wife Catherine was the jumper. A talented photographer and a woman who has suffered and struggled with depression, in some ways it is not surprising, albeit truly a shock, that she has killed herself. However, something does not sit right with Cardinal. In spite of his grief he resolves to find out who could have pushed Catherine over the edge both literally and metaphorically. What he discovers through forensics and common sense is a whole new terrifying kind of criminal.


I saw this loopy mystery advertised in the Sunday New York Times and had to pick it up because I loved Kaplow's earlier book ME AND ORSON WELLES. His latest offering is high satire and ripe parody of the storytelling styles of Danielle Steel, Curtis Sittenfeld, Tom Clancy, Sue Grafton and Stephen King. Each writer is swiftly murdered in a manner typically endured by victims in their own novels. Kaplow playfully skewers Steve Martin, Gerard Depardieu, Cole Porter and Michiko Kakatani, among other pop cultural icons. If you're ready for distraction and laugh out loud capers, pick up WHO'S KILLING THE GREAT WRITERS OF AMERICA.

HOME SCHOOLING by Carol Windley (2006)

This short story collection made it to last year's shortlist for the Giller Prize, and having read all of the stories I find it difficult to believe that the book didn't win. Windley's stories are haunting and in each narrative characters confront sorrow and longing. The descriptive detail is exquisite and evocative and Windley's ability to honor the ordinariness of life puts her in league with Carol Shields and Alice Munro.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

PIECE OF MY HEART by Peter Robinson (2006)

My greatest surprise in this Inspector Banks mystery is that nowhere do we read the lyrics in Joplin's refrain that gives the novel its title. PIECE OF MY HEART follows parallel narratives thirty years apart. In 1969, there's been a brutal murder at an outdoor rock concert of a beautiful young woman named Linda Lofthouse. And, it seems that the killer has a penchant for painting little blue cornflowers on his victim's faces.

More than thirty years later Banks investigates an equally gruesome murder of a freelance music journalist who seemed to be researching a controversial piece about the band the Mad Hatters. Discovering how the murders are linked provides Banks with difficult truths about the past and the present.

Friday, July 27, 2007

THE END: HAMBURG 1943 by Hans Erich Nossack

Translated from the German by Joel Agee, this eye-witness account is a little piece of perfection about the Allied bombing of Hamburg from a German survivor's perspective, a meditation on war and hope. The following two excerpts will give you a sense of it:

Now all that was left of the steeple was a pitifully rotted and blackened stump. It had broken off right above the clock, the hour hand was pointing to shortly after one; but was it noon or midnight? And on what date? Above the clock you could still see the word "Gloria" in gold letters. The copper of the roof had draped itself over the nave like a shroud. Only way in back , on a remnant of the sacristy, the golden saint still stood with his steering wheel, pointing a finger into the distance.


So I wrapped a wet blanket around my head and crawled out. Then we went through the fire. Some people keeled over in the street then. We couldn't take care of them. ~ November 1943

Monday, July 23, 2007

THE LIAR'S CLUB by Mary Karr (1995)

I picked up this memoir because Stephen King remarks about Karr's extraordinary ability to recreate her childhood with exceptional detail in his biblical tract ON WRITING. I love that she begins with a quotation from Pound's CANTOS--"nothing matters but the quality of the affection in the end that has carved the trace in the mind." So much of what follows is removed from that affection, because Karr's childhood is one rife with horrors great and small.

She leaps right in with a sharp, dark memory when she is seven or eight and being asked by the family doctor to "show me the marks. Please? Just pull this up and show me where it hurts." So much of Karr's narrative hurts. Yet, she has a remarkable way of offering up what happened without blame. That she is able to forgive her mother her outrageously irresponsible behaviour is reason enough to read THE LIAR'S CLUB to negotiate similar paths of forgiveness.

Monday, July 16, 2007

CAUGHT STEALING by Charlie Huston (2004)

Talk about narrative drive! In CAUGHT STEALING, Hank Thompson does a favour for his neighbour Russ by looking after his cat Bud. That favour leads to the unravelling of Hank's life as he knew it. He ends up being beaten by Russian thugs, plays high-stakes hide and seek with dirty cops in the NYPD, rides the subway through Manhattan with a dead body at his side, finds his ex-girlfriend in a compromising position and ends up sitting on the floor of a storage unit in Chelsea counting out laundered bills that add up to over 4 million. At least the cat survives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

SHOOTING WATER by Devyani Saltzman (2005)

The daughter of esteemed filmmaker Deepa Mehta, Devyani Saltzman chronicles the difficult journey of making the final film in her mother's trilogy EARTH, FIRE and WATER, but more importantly honestly reflects on the strained relationship she's had with her famous mother since she chose at the time of separation to live with her father.

WATER was plagued with issues during its initial production schedule in India in 1999 when government officials declared that its portrayal of the Hindu widows was false. Locals even built an effigy of Mehta and burned it as well as the sets to the ground.

With new financing, and under the working title FULL MOON, the production starting shooting five years later in Sri Lanka. In Spring 2007 WATER was Canada's submission for the best foreign film at the Academy Awards.

SHOOTING WATER not only helped me to understand the process of film production but also to appreciate Saltzman's honesty about herself and about her resolve to mend the holes in the rapport with her mother.

Monday, July 09, 2007

ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan (2007)

Set in 1962, McEwan's novella charts the journey of newlyweds Florence and Edward, two tentative lovers who discover that what remains unsaid can be hugely damaging to any relationship.

THE CRUELLEST MONTH by Louise Penny (2007)

The charming and inscrutable Inspector Gamache is called to Three Pines to investigate the suspicious death of Madeleine Favreau, a fairly recent addition to the community. When a medium is invited to town to hold a seance to spice up the lives of the residents, the ante is upped when they all decide to move the experience to the Hadley house. In this sad home known for its haunting, it seems that the lovely Madeleine has been literally scared to death.

With a series of red herring clues and the typically helpful cast of stock characters including Clara and Peter, Olivier and Gabri, Gamache and his team of investigators solve the mystery in a surprising way which involves embracing the notion that trees have feelings and that the past is never really past.

Monday, June 18, 2007

LOVE WALKED IN by Marisa De Los Santos (2005)

When Martin Grace walks into the hip Philadelphia coffee shop that Cornelia Brown manages, her life alters. This new-found Cary-Grant-look-alike love is the harbinger of greater changes to come. Across town, eleven-year-old Clare Hobbs is abandoned by her mentally ill mother and decides to go looking for her lost father. Clare and Cornelia's paths cross and the two form an unlikely and improbable friendship. De Los Santos invokes the power of classic films to illuminate the mystery and wonder of love in all its permutations.

THE BLACK BOOK by Ian Rankin (1993)

There are several black books that give this gripping Rebus tale its title. When a close colleague is brutally attacked, Detective Rebus is drawn into a cold case that involves a hotel fire, the privileged playboy son of a banker, an unidentified corpse and a long forgotten night of terror and murder. HIs nemesis Ger Cafferty figures slyly. Rebus has to try to decode the secrets in his colleague's notebook to piece together a jigsaw of clues that no-one wants completed.


I read a review of this memoir in the Sunday New York Times and decided to pick it up. I admire Homes's short fiction, with its spare prose and directness, so thought at least stylistically I would like her memoir. Her birth mother contacts her through a lawyer and the eventual reunion is fraught with neediness. When her birth father decides to get in the game as well, Homes finds herself agreeing to a paternity test which determines that they are a 99.9% match. Though, she knew he was her blood relative with one glimpse of his ass. Her ass. The power of genetic determination.

When Homes finally unpacks the boxes of her birth mother's life, your heart will crack just a little. Throughout, Homes reassures that her real parents are the people who raised her in a loving home. And, it is her mother who telephones to tell her that her mother died, not the lawyer.

Monday, June 04, 2007

DEATH AND JUDGMENT by Donna Leon (1995)

Set in Venice and its environs, DEATH AND JUDGMENT is another of Leon's Commissario Brunetti crime novels. A truck crashes on a treacherous bend in the mountains of Northern Italy, spilling a surprising cargo of young sex trade workers being smuggled. A few days later a prominent international lawyer is found dead aboard an intercity train at Santa Lucia. Commissario Brunetti wonders if the two tragedies could be related.

His quest for truth leads him to a seedy Venetian bar and a crime network that stretches beyond the lagoon. It will take at least another gruesome death before Brunnetti and his colleagues begin to understand what is really going on.

Pick up Donna Leon's books. She will keep you flipping pages in earnest.

SERENDIPITY ROAD by Catherine DeVrye (2007)

SERENDIPTY ROAD chronicles DeVrye’s personal journey. Abandoned as a baby, she was adopted by loving parents in Calgary. When DeVrye was 21, her parents died of cancer within a year of each other.

When DeVrye packed her bags and arrived jobless in Australia, she began to find her place—but not before she waited tables, taught phys. ed., worked on a mine site and became a public servant. Later she joined IBM where she was posted in Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York.

Named Australian Executive Woman of the Year, Catherine found herself dining with princes, prime ministers and Olympic athletes. In her down time she cycled over the Andes, dived with sharks and climbed Kilimanjaro.

When DeVrye decided to search for her biological parents, her adventures really began.

COME AWAY by Anne Hines (2007)

In COME AWAY, U of T professor Reggie Niefeild has devoted his academic life to unraveling the mystery of the baffling erotic love poem that has disturbed clergy for over two thousand years. In a parallel plot, Shahiroz, a young Jewish woman, priestess of the goddess Asherah, is confronted with exile from Babylon with a return to Jerusalem and to a strange and solitary god called Yahweh.

COME AWAY suggests startling truths about the genesis of the Bible, our Western concept of God and of love itself.

BETWEEN TRAINS by Barry Callaghan (2007)

BETWEEN TRAINS is Callaghan’s eagerly anticipated and already celebrated collection of short fiction inhabited by characters including gangsters, Shoah survivors, priests and the idle rich. In spite of having no faith, they try desperately to believe; though their hearts have been broken, they try desperately to love; though they feel forgotten, they try desperately to tell their stories. In the most daring story of the collection, Callaghan provides true appeal for retributive justice.

Monday, May 14, 2007

GARCIA'S HEART by Liam Durcan (2007)

Durcan's first novel is now on my list of top ten contemporary novels. I had only intended to dip into it this weekend and instead dove headfirst, reluctant to come up for air.

Dr. Hernan Garcia is on trial for crimes against humanity committed in the 1980s in Honduras. Patrick Lazerenko, a neurologist with previously close ties to Garcia's family, finds himself taking a leave of absence and travelling to the Hague where he tries to reconcile his understanding of this man who had been so kind and generous to him in the past.

The book appealed to me on many levels--as an exploration of a complicated man; as a travelogue of the Hague (where I roamed last March); as a bildungsroman; as a lesson in medical terminology...I am particularly interested now in neurological terms because a dear friend has been recently diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer; as a riff on man's inhumanity to man.....and the kindness of strangers.

Really, it's such a brilliant book. And beautifully written. All discerning readers should pick up a copy of Liam Durcan's GARCIA'S HEART.

THE FALLS by Ian Rankin (2001)

As part of my newfound obsession in reading everything Rankin before October 17th (including the newly serialized story OPEN DOORS in this past weekend's Sunday New York Times Book Review), I devoured THE FALLS. What I've come to expect with Rankin in his storytelling are broad allusions to poetry and witty use of music and lyrics to amplify mood and character development.

The daughter of a banker disappears and a bizarre little coffin is found at the fall near her family estate. Both Rebus and his partner DC Clarke are put on the case and they discover a creepy online correspondence between "Flip" and someone who refers to himself only as "Quizmaster." Siobhan contacts him and is led on an eerie journey that finds her combing the Edinburgh streets for the next cryptic clue, hoping to reveal the truth about what has happened to Flip.

A dottering retired pathologist, a dissheveled ex-boyfriend, a loopy potter, a godfather with a questionably close relationship to the victim and a medical student with a likely grudge round out the cast of potential suspects in this typically gripping narrative.

I WAS A CHILD OF HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS by Bernice Eisenstein (2006)

This graphic memoir distills, through text and illustration, Eisenstein's memories of her 1950s childhood in Toronto with her Yiddish-speaking parents, whose often unspoken experiences of war were nevertheless always present. Remarkably, her parents met in Auschwitz , near the end of the war and were married shortly after Liberation.

With poignancy and searing honesty, Eisenstein explores with ineffable sadness the bittersweet humour her childhood growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust.I was especially moved by her mother's account of what happened to her at Auschwitz as transcribed by Eisenstein from the videotape interview made for Steven Spielberg's Shoah project.

This haunting, visually ravishing graphic memoir speaks universally about memory, loss and recovery of the past through storytelling.

Bernice Eisenstein will talk about her book and show accompanying images on Tuesday May 15th at 7:30 p.m. at Royal St. George's College in Toronto.

OUTCAST by Jose Latour (2007)

In this hard-boiled, crime novel Havana is beautiful, rundown and home to Elliot Steil, an English teacher barely eking out a living in Cuba. As much as he loves his country, it frustrates and disappoints him. So, when a man claiming to be a friend of his estranged American father offers Elliot a way off the island, he reluctantly agrees.

Steill makes it to Miami, but not as he had planned. You would think the difficulties were well behind him by the time he washes ashore, but not so. He combs Miami's mean streets for the man who deceived him and the reason why he was so horribly betrayed. He finds that the new world is a dysfunctional free-market flipside of communist Cuba-- both brimming with greed, corruption and explosive violence, but also with the kindness of strangers so unexpected that it's wrenching.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

RESURRECTION MEN by Ian Rankin (2001)

Since Ian Rankin has agreed to appear in a PEN Canada event I am co-chairing in October 2007, I am reading as many of his novels as I can. His Inspector Rebus appeals to me immensely with his penchant for writing poetry, drinking single malt and listening to The Stones.

In RESURRECTION MAN, Rebus is sent to be "re-trained" at the police college for having tossed a cup of coffee in the direction of his boss Gil Temple. There, he works on a cold case with other miscreants throughout the force. It soon becomes clear that Rebus is there undercover to try to expose some dirty cops.

In the subplot, Rebus's partner, Siobhan gets close to a prostitute who is slashed by her ex-boyfriend and dies in her arms. She thinks that mobster Gerry Cafferty is behind it all, but this time, he's not.

Typically engaging and provocative, RESURRECTION MEN is worth a weekend.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

MISSISSIPPI SISSY by Kevin Sessums (2007)

This memoir will make you laugh until you weep and then make you weep again. Sessums is a longtime contributing editor to VANITY FAIR and ALLURE and this first book has launched him to superstardom with its directness and moving prose.

Born in the south to an NBA player for the New York Knicks and his adorable wife, Sessums became the man of the house when his father was killed in a car crash when Kevin was only seven and then his mother died of cancer a year later. Kevin and his younger siblings Kim and Karole were raised by their maternal grandparents. To cope, Kevin divined an imaginary friend, a little Black girl he named Epiphany and chanelled Arlene Francis, his t.v. idol from What's My Line--that campy socialite who flounced about in evening gowns and wore a black silk eyemask dotted with diamond chips.

Sessums read at Harborfront last week and won me over with the authenticity of his voice. If you want to treat yourself, get yourself a copy of this book and watch the author emerge in this fine portrait of the artist as a young man.

BITTER CHOCOLATE by Carol Off (2006)

Subtitled INVESTIGATING THE DARK SIDE OF THE WORLD'S MOST SEDUCTIVE SWEET, Carol Off's foray begins with tracing the origins and lore of the cocoa craze in South America while revealing the exploitation that has always been part of the production of the treat. More recently, the complicity of Western governments and corporations that turn a blind eye to the child labour that makes cheap labour possible in Cote D'Ivoire (which produces nearly half of the world's cocoa beans) reveals the indentured servitude of thousands of young boys who have never tasted chocolate. Part history lesson, part expose of the multi-billion dollar industry, BITTER CHOCOLATE will shock you into never reaching for a Mars bar or Snickers or package of Smarties again.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

THE NAMING OF THE DEAD by Ian Rankin (2006)

Taking place in the days surrounding the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland in July 2005, the latest Rankin novel immediately had my attention because I had been in Edinburgh at the end of June that same year and witnessed the barricades being set up near Holyrood House and talked with shopkeepers who were considering boarding up windows along Princes Street.

Although the big show would be to protect the diplomats arriving for the official confab about making poverty history, with the focus on increasing aid to sub-Saharan Africa, the real show for Inspector John Rebus and his colleague Siobhan Clarke is a series of murders with clues left at the nearby Clootie well in Auchterarder. And, when an UK civil servant seems to leap to his death from the rampart at Edinburgh castle, the stakes increase. And, that's not all. Rebus's nemesis, the intimidating Ger Cafferty, seems to be implicated in back room dealings as well as paying off dirty cops.

Add Rebus's own personal loss of his only brother, Michael, at the beginning of the book, and you have a sophisticated mulit-layered tale of which Rankin is the master weaver. THE NAMING OF THE DEAD is not to be missed.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN by Claire Messud (2006)

Set in NYC in 2001 the novel follows three friends and their hangers-on throughout the summer and early fall. Things fall apart, the centre does not hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon their worlds, to bastardize W.B. Yeats. It's a little like a soap opera for a literary palate.

One t.v.-producing girlfriend is having an affair with her best friend's father, a famous writer. Another is a gay freelancer who pays the bills by temping and bedding his handsome boss who wears bespoke suits. An indulged Bryn Mawr princess who has never held a job in her life, moves back in with her parents in their lavish apartment overlooking the Park and then falls for an Australia anarchist who has great designs on conquering New York with his brilliantly conceived satirical magazine.

Add the loner, university dropout nephew who stirs every pot and leaves the extended circle of friends and relatives with their perplexed heads swivelling from side to side, and you've got Messud's version of modern society. Over indulged and over indulging. Though disappointed with the ending, up until the denouement, I didn't want to put this book down.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

THE END OF THE ALPHABET by C.S. Richardson (2007)

My friend Pat loaned me her copy of this delectable first novel last night and I read it from cover to cover in one gulp, in spite of the fact that I picked it up at 10:45 at night and had to be at work by 7:30 this morning.

On or about his 50th birthday, Ambrose Zephyr is told by his matter-of-fact MD that he has an incurable disease which "would kill him within the month. Give or take a day." He and his wife Zappora embark on a tour of the alphabet in his remaining days. Some of their choices are nostalgic and others adventuresome: Amsterdam, Berlin, Chartres...Elba (then amended to Eiffel Tower in Paris), Florence, Giza...Istanbul...truncated MNOPQRSTU...Venice....originally Zanzibar and finally home with Zipper.

Richardson's writing is clean and his affinity for storytelling prescient. And, the cover design of an imitation Moleskin journal makes you feel like you're prying into someone's life--the true true thing. Where fiction transcends non-fiction in its ability to reveal emotional truth.

Read this beautiful billet-doux of a book.

C.S. Richardson is appearing with Ian McEwen in Toronto at the EnWave Theatre on Monday April 30th 2007.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RAISIN WINE by James Bartleman (2007)

Ontario's Lieutenant General has penned this charming memoir about growing up in a different Muskoka during the 40s and early 50s. The title refers to the homebrew that Jimmy's Scottish dad concocts and serves to the locals out behind their outhouse as liberally as he does his stories. Raised in poverty by loving parents and having faced racist taunts of "half-breed" throughout his childhood because his mother is Native and his father is white, we follow the plucky and determined 7-13 year-old Jimmy as he schemes to break the cycle by taking on jobs as a paperboy and later as a scrap metal collector.

Written with honesty and true affection for another time and place in spite of its challenges, RAISIN WINE is worth your time.

Friday, March 16, 2007

THE TIME IN BETWEEN (2005) by David Bergen

Bergen's novel travels from the interior of BC to Vietnam and back and insists that the reader takes that journey eavesdropping alongside Charles Boatman and two of his children Ada and Jon.

Boatman raised his three children on his own when his estranged wife is killed in an accident. And, though he insists that he is a man incapable of love, he manages to show real love towards Ada, Jon and Del. Charles is haunted by his past. Specifically by his active duty in Vietnam where he served with other eighteen year olds and bore witness to the slaughter of innocent Vietnamese.

When his children are adults getting on with their own lives, Charles decides to visit Vietnam to try to put some of his personal ghosts to rest. And, when he loses contact with his children, two of them follow in his footsteps determined to peel away the layers of secrecy in his complicated life.

Bergen's prose is strong, spare and rhythmic. And, boy does he know how to tell a compelling story.


I reread this novel in preparation for the Spring novel studies in my Grade 11 class and loved it even more the second time through. Blue and Emma are siblings who find meaning in their lives first through their connection to each other and then through their separate passions of archeology and tatooing. They lack for models in the parenting department since their father Oliver, an inventor and dreamer, abandoned them and their mother Elaine and with his creepy departure they lost their mother to the fog of alcoholism.

In spite of emotional journeys fraught with disappointment and disillusion both Blue and Emma turn out just fine in the end. Knowing as they always have that they can rely on each other no matter what.

THE KING OF THE MAITRE D'S by Louis Jannetta (2007)

Jannetta was the burly maitre d' at the Royal York's Imperial Room during the 70s and 80s when top notch talent like Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney sang in Toronto. The book is a collection of anecdotes of his life among the stars. The book is chatty and unsophisticated, but it's the delicious gossip that makes it worthwhile.

I went to the launch last Sunday and marvelled at the number of toupees in the room. Apparently there are men who still wear toupees, a great revelation to me. Faded 60s heartthrob Bobby Curtola leapt across the stage, thereby upstaging Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion's enconmium to the almost octogenarian Jannetta.

Monday, March 12, 2007

THE TRADE MISSION by Andrew Pyper (2002)

Private school classmates Wallace and Bates are genuises who are on a trade mission to Brazil to pitch their product HYPOTHESYS to the morally bankrupt South American government officials. After their business is done they travel with their translator Crossman and their marketers Barry and Lydia on an eco-tourism cruise into the Amazon. Lies lead to torture and few of them make it out of the jungle alive.

Pyper's got a gift for storytelling and suspense. He is a master of the literary thriller genre.

A THOUSAND ACRES by Jane Smiley (1999)

Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel relies on the structure and content of KING LEAR to inform this family's tragic tale when the patriarch decides to divide his thousand acres of land between his three daughters, Ginny (Goneril), Rose (Regan) and Caroline (Cordelia). When Caroline refuses to sign her name to the deed, things fall apart indeed, though not before the neighbouring farmer is blinded like Gloucester or before Rose and Ginny ruin their own marriages by sleeping with the same irresistable prodigal son, Jess Clarke.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

LOST GIRLS by Andrew Pyper (1999)

Pyper's earlier novel is as gripping as his most recent one THE WILDFIRE SEASON.

In LOST GIRLS, Barth Crane is a hot shot Toronto lawyer hired to defend a high school English teacher in a northern Ontario town who has been accused of murdering two of his former students, Krystal and Ashley. The bodies have never been found, and with reasonable doubt established for the jury it seems that Crane has an easy enough job of achieiving his client's acquittal.

However, local lore about "the Lady of the Lake" and Barth's own tragic past combine to reveal new truths about what actually happened. Pyper's literary thriller is well worth your time.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

FAMILY MAN by Calvin Trillin (1998)

I am on my Trillin tear trying to pick up copies of as many of his 20+ books as I can lay my hands on. FAMILY MAN is a series of vignettes ranging from pre-kid days with Alice and Calvin on their own to the early childhoods of daughters Abigail and Sarah to the post-graduate days of those same girls.

Trillin is equal parts honesty, charm and humour. Reading FAMILY MAN will make you long for such a reconstructed history even if it didn't happen to you in the first place.

THE GUN SELLER by Hugh Laurie (1996)

I'm a rabid fan of Hugh Laurie's acting...Jeeves and Wooster with fellow Cambridge-educated smartypants Stephen Fry...husband to Imelda Staunton in PETER'S FRIENDS, father to the mouse voiced by Michael J. Fox in STUART LITTLE and the curmudgeonly eponymous physician on HOUSE.

This murder mystery showcases Laurie's naughty wit, though the plot drags on and the witticisms are at times a little precious.

Stephen Fry is a better writer. Pick up one of his books instead. Maybe MAKING HISTORY or THE HIPPOPOTAMUS or THE STAR'S TENNIS BALLS--a contemporary re-telling of Webster's play THE DUCHESS OF MALFI.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

MORAL DISORDER by Margaret Atwood (2006)

I haven't read a new collection or novel by Atwood in a few years, and I was delighted by this most recent collection of linked short fiction. These stories chronicle a family's history, in a similar way to Alice Munro's fictionalized version of her own lore in THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK. But, there is something about Atwood's storytelling that enables me to identify myself and my own relatives in its midst.

Was Atwood never at the top of her game?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

CONSUMPTION by Kevin Patterson (2006)

I've been wanting to read this novel since I first saw the gorgeous cover photo of a woman model posing with the skull of a caribou where her own face ought to be.

This book, rooted in the far north, transports you along with the protagonist Victoria to the south where she is treated for TB and then back to her community where she continues to be a stranger, even to her family. Victoria marries as "kablunauk", a southerner named Robertson who does his best to accommodate the native ways.

Sorrow follows Victoria throughout her life with the loss of two children, the violent and unresolved murder of her husband and her increasing distance from the land on which she was raised with abiding love.

Consumed as he is with the rhythms of the north, Kevin Patterson manages to weave a compelling tale about family, love, loss and healing.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

FROM HARVEY RIVER by Lorna Goodison (2007)

Goodison's memoir of her mother and her mother's people is rooted in place in Jamaica. Doris Harvey is one of the illustrious Harvey girls raised by the river that sustained them and named after their immigrant forefathers. She is the shy daughter to Margaret and David Harvey who captures the attentions of Marcus Goodison, a handsome young man who makes a weeky pilgrimmage to get to know her and to ask for her hand in marriage.

Woven with Jamaican Creole aphorisms and song and the Irish temper and wisdom of Margaret's white father George O'Brian Wilson, FROM HARVEY RIVER is a rich cultural tapestry.

When fortunes change and Doris and Marcus must start a life over in Kingston, it is back to Harvey River that Doris's imagination wanders for solace and belonging as she raises her nine children in a new reality.

A SPOT OF BOTHER by Mark Haddon (2006)

The recently retired George is looking forward to building a little studio at the back of his garden where he plans to sketch and paint. His daughter Katie announces that she is going to marry Ray, a man that both George and her mother Jean think inappropiate. Katie's brother Jamie is also unsure of Ray's suitability but sees that he loves Katie and her son Jacob.

George discovers a lesion on his hip that sends him for a loop. Katie calls off her wedding and Jamie breaks up with his boyfriend Tony. The only member of the family even remotely happy is Jean who is blissfully and furtively carrying on an affair with David, a former colleague of her husband.

Their world falls apart and the centre does not hold as the Halls try to stumble their way to healing.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

ABOUT ALICE by Calvin Trillin (2006)

Calvin Trillin is a long-serving staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of 20+ books of fiction and non-fiction. ABOUT ALICE is a gem of a memoir where he reveals the true Alice, the woman he fell in love with and was lucky enough to be married to for almost forty years. Rife with Trillin's trademark witticisms and his keen observations about the dignity of human life, ABOUT ALICE will make you smile from cover to cover.

Monday, February 05, 2007

WOMEN WITH MEN by Richard Ford (1997)

There are three long stories--moreso novellas-- in this collection. Ford contemplates the complexities of passionate relationships and meditates on the affect of place in setting the tone. He writes convincingly from both male and female perspectives with uncanny sympathy.

LUCKY GIRLS by Nell Freudenberger (2003)

I picked this collection of stories up from a remainder table while waiting for a film to start. It's Freudenberger's first book and reflects personal experiences she had living as a white woman in India and south-east Asia. Each story finds an outsider protagonist more at home away from home. Her style reminds me of Richard Ford's writing: spare, muscular prose. Both writers explore the contemporary human condition and are especially atuned to the nuances in intimate relationships between men and women.

Friday, February 02, 2007


Didion's national book award-winning memoir is as arresting on its third reading as it was during its first. It will become one of the books that I re-read annually to try to absorb her masterful and direct style. Grief makes all of us both less and more than we were before.

THE VIEW FROM CASTLE ROCK by Alice Munro (2006)

I've been a fan of Munro's style since I first read LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN twenty years ago. Her latest, and she claims her last, collection is her most personal. Blending memoir and fiction in these intergenerational stories. Regretably, I found the first section rather dull, but the remaining stories are independently luminous gems. I refuse to believe that this is Munro's last book.

Friday, January 26, 2007

THE GIRLS by Lori Lansens (2005)

During a particularly ferocious tornado in 1974 twins Ruby and Rose Darlen are born in a small town in southwestern Ontario. The girls are a fascination for both the town locals and travellers from abroad because they are not only identical, but also joined at the side of their heads by a patch the size of your palm.

As they approach their unexpected 30th birthday, Rose decides to write her autobiography. What emerges is a story of remarkable love and compassion; a story of true belonging.

Go out and get yourself a copy of this accomplished and human tale. It will make your heart swell.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

THE ROMANTIC by Barbara Gowdy (2003)

Louise Kirk is no stranger to love and loss. When she is nine years old, her mother disappears and leaves simply a note attached to the fridge for Louise and her father which reads only "Louise knows how to work the washing machine." Shortly thereafter the Richters move into the house across the street.

Louise has fantasies about being adopted by them as a daughter just as they have chosen their adoptive son Abel(ard), her new best friend. Though geography intervenes and necessarily defines their relationship for several years, Louise can never manage to move beyond her longstanding love for Abel.

THE ROMANTIC addresses the complicated multi-faceted forms of love in haunting ways.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

SUMMER CROSSING by Truman Capote (2004)

Published posthumously by the Capote Trust during the flurry of attention because of the two Hollywood films CAPOTE and INFAMOUS, SUMMER CROSSING is a frothy early manuscript that evokes privileged life in Manhattan in the 1940s.

Seventeen-year-old Grady begs off the summer crossing with her parents to their summer home in France and remains in their upper east side luxury apartment occasionally dining with her long-time friend Peter, but more frequently arranging assignations with her current unsuitable object of affection Clyde who manages a parking lot.

What begins as a light-hearted, whimsical tale of indulgence takes a sharp turn when Grady finds herself pregnant and she careens way off track.

Stylistic seeds are planted for Capote's much-loved BREAKFAST AT TIFFANIES and ground-breaking IN COLD BLOOD.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


In this creative non-fiction collection, the Griffin Poetry Prize winner (for THE STRANGE HOURS TRAVELERS KEEP) ruminates about the scope of his life: growing up in a New Jersey neighborhood where he was surrounded by gangsters and raised by his family dog; his love affair with public transit; his friendship with Beat-god Allan Ginsberg; his penchant for mid-afternoon boozing; his loathing of Garrison Keillor's homespun stories and penchant for reading bad poetry on air nationwide; and, his respect for his gay older brother who commits suicide--a complicated man whom he misses.

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."

Kleinzahler's prose is tough, unflinchingly honest and gut-wrenching.

A must read.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

CROSS BONES by Kathy Reichs (2005)

When a forensic pathologist becomes involved in the autopsy of an Orthodox Jew, her work life becomes unexpectedly thrilling. Someone thrusts a photo of a skeleton her way and cryptically claims it is the reason that the recently deceased has been murdered. Temperance follows the trail, with the help of Detective Andy Ryan, first to a monestary outside Montreal where she is given a bag of illustrious human remains and then across the ocean to Israel where a former colleague is excavating the site of what he believes to be the Jesus family tomb. There Temperance remarkably finds a shroud with bones and life becomes all the more adrenhaline-pumping exciting.

More of a page turner than THE DA VINCI code, and rife with historical conjecture and Biblical allusion, CROSS BONES will certainly have you questioning its plausibility. It's worth the ride, especially with the controversial evidence of the James (brother of Jesus) ossuary that even made a pit stop here in Toronto at the ROM a few years ago.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


In this YA novel set in rural Ontario, Clouds McFadden is the new kid in town who greets his fellow eighth graders with the atypical, "Good morning, proletarians." Clouds has great plans to reform what he regards as the tyrannical rule of the teachers in his school and their principal, "the Penguin."

Caught up in repeating history, Clouds's good intentions become warped and his friends have to figure out a way to save him from himself.

UNTOLD STORIES by Alan Bennett (2005)

The esteemed British playwright has published a collection of non-fiction which includes thoughts about art, architecture, life in the theatre and his personal diaries between 1996-2004. I was most interested in the section about THE HISTORY BOYS, his award-winning play that set a record for Tonys on Broadway this past season, and which is currently on the big screen in theatres across the country with the same compelling ensemble cast I saw at the Broadhurst Theatre in July.

I was surprised by Bennett's stoic approach to the news of colon cancer and his positive attitude that comes out of that recent experience where he is relieved that he can afford private health care and move to the front of the line but equally disappointed in himself that as a socialist he chose to leap the queue.

His refusal to accept both a CBE (under Thatcher) and later a knighthood (under Blair) is curiously Woolf-like in its resolution to refuse gifts from strangers. He claims he couldn't possibly accept either because he couldn't come up with a suitable joke.

DEAD SIMPLE by Peter James (2005)

If you are even mildly claustrophobic, don't read this thriller. As part laugh and part retributive justice for previous pranks pulled, groom-to-be Michael is taken to a series of pubs by his mates and then buried alive in a coffin. The prank unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse when those very mates are killed in a car crash and no surviving friend is able to help Detective Inspector Roy Grace find the missing Michael.

This is a creepy novel with many plot twists. It is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

TEACHER MAN by Frank McCourt (2005)

Chronicling his thirty years as a teacher in the NYC public high school system, McCourt unflinchingly portrays both the daily joy and frustration of being in the classroom on display and at the mercy of a roomful of adolescents who find teachers often boring and sometimes curious.

That we are all writers with stories to tell is what matters most. And the gift of trust which is occasionally exchanged in the classroom keeps us hooked on that learning curve.