Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan (2010) Knopf

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD is my first exposure to Jennifer Egan, but it certainly won't be my last. I'll be shuffling through her backlist as soon as my local library branch can source each title. Her narrative is smart and her prose clean and sometimes startling.

The novel weaves together the stories of Bennie Salazar, a 60-something NYC record exec with a punk rocker past, with Sasha, his glamorous and competent assistant with a storied past of her own that includes kleptomania, anorexia and more than one attempt at suicide. And, although Bennie and Sasha are oblivious about the essential details of each others' complicated lives, we are party to every secret along the way from a family safari in Africa to getting lost and found in Naples, Italy to San Francisco's punk scene in the early 70s and New York City today.

There are supporting characters that move in and out of Bennie's and Sasha's lives and the gaps between their entrances and exits serve as musical rests in the symphony of each life. We come to understand that the silences are as resonant as the notes themselves. Sasha's 13-yr-old son Lincoln is obsessed with the pauses in songs and it is his obsession that leads Sasha to realize, "the pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn't really over, so you're relieved. But then the song does actually end because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL."

Egan uses a variety of narrative techniques that embrace and satirize contemporary forms including texting and PowerPoint. For me, each page was a revelation, a pause on each character's path to redemption. Isn't that what we all yearn for?

Friday, December 24, 2010

STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson (2010) Bond Street Books

After another masterful turn with WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?, Kate Atkinson offers a new literary thriller featuring Jackson Brodie, her now retired detective who manages to find himself in the thick of it in Leeds while he's innocently researching a private client's mysterious past.

There are three narrative threads in STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG: Tracy Waterhouse is a retired Police Superintendent now passing the time as the chief of security at a shopping complex; Tilly is a septogenarian actress suffering the early stages of dementia and playing the heart-throb's mother in COLLIER, a t.v. show; and, Jackson Brodie is the familiar rough around the edges divorced and retired detective, "drifting, as a tourist in his own country" when he witnesses the cruel and unusual punishment of a lively little terrier and decides that a "small,helpless dog seemed like a good place to draw the line" about violence.

When Tracy makes a Faustian deal with a known prostitute and her transaction is witnessed by both Tilly and Jackson, their trajectories become entwined and all three soon come to realize that no good deed goes unpunished.

Atkinson creates credible responses to incredible circumstances for each of her characters and her command of storytelling sets her up to rival the best writing today. In Kate Atkinson's world there is wit and wisdom and fierce moral intelligence. You will always be satisfied by the way she weaves her tale.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

TOUCH by Alexi Zentner (from the ARC) due April 2011 from Knopf Canada

Alexi Zentner is one of Random House of Canada's 2011 New Faces of Fiction and if you are the kind of reader who yearns for a lyrical tale well told, this novel is for you. With such lush, sophisticated and haunting prose, it's hard to believe that this is Zentner's first one.

TOUCH opens in a logging village in Northern BC in the early 20th century where the narrator Stephen (now an Anglican priest with a family of his own) is his boyhood self watching his foreman father standing "at the top of the chute hollering at the men and shaking his mangled hand, urging them on." In that distant past Stephen shows us the heart of the loss of his childhood, an incident that resonates in every winter landscape. And, there we meet his grandfather Jeannot, a tough and mysterious giant in Stephen's memory, a man whose convictions hide behind Stephen's adult faith and doubt.

As I was reading, I couldn't help but think of Joseph Boyden's THREE DAY ROAD and the way that it honours Native spirituality and the healing power of stories through the tales Niska tells her nephew on their final journey home. Here Zentner does the same by giving equal measure to Jeannot's wild beliefs as he does to Stephen's more conventional ones, honed as a chaplain on the WWI Front from which he returned, "getting off the ship the day the Treaty of Versailles was signed."

The novel shifts seamlessly back and forth between past and present, a present wherein Stephen has returned to his childhood village to bear witness to his ailing mother's death, to deliver her eulogy, and to take over his stepfather's responsibilities as the pastor of the Anglican Church in Sawgamet. Stephen admits (and this is the heart of this marvelous book), "no matter how many times my thoughts returned to the winter I was ten, no matter how many questions I asked my mother as she lay dying, no matter how many stories I have heard about my father and grandfather, there are still so many things I will never know."

There are still so many things I will never know, but in reading TOUCH I am a little bit closer to their truth.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY by Steve Martin (2010) Grand Central Publishing

Is there anything this Renaissance man cannot do? He can go toe to toe with Alec Baldwin for Meryl Streep's affection in IT'S COMPLICATED, make a mean chocolate croissant from scratch, and date Liz Lemon as the pathological liar Gavin Velour in a guest starring spot on 30 ROCK. And, didn't he just win a Grammy for plinking his banjo and also publish a New York Times bestseller in the same year?

I've long admired Steve Martin's writing, having read both his fiction (PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE, SHOPGIRL, THE PLEASURE OF MY COMPANY) and his nonfiction (BORN STANDING UP), so was excited to see that he had a new novel out this fall.

AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY transports you into the idiosyncratic world of art collectors and offers an Art History 101 course replete with colour panels of important paintings while you're along for the heady ride.

Daniel Franks, who is true to his family name, is our reliable narrator who tells the story of Lacey Yeager, a one-time lover and longtime friend who is a clever and captivating student of the NYC art world into which she hurls herself in the early 90s. Apprenticing in the dungeons at Sotheby's, cataloguing, Lacey soon finds a way to move up the corporate ladder and then out into the world of boutique Manhattan galleries frequented by both the rich and famous who are eager to add to their burgeoning collections. With a shrewd investment of a Warhol that she purchases for a song and then parlays into real money, Lacey makes her way, toppling romantic entanglements that seem to take up just too much of her time.

Lacey is plucky and intelligent and not often easy to like in her narcissism, but as her former lover Patrice explains near the end of the tale, "I think Lacey is the kind of person who will always be okay."

Three things I did not expect and was delighted to find in this wonderful romp: a John Updike cameo, an allusion to HAMLET, and a renewed interest in the paintings of Rockwell Kent. If you are looking for a smart, elegant read that immerses you in NYC's tony art community, AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY is the novel for you.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

COAL DUST KISSES: A CHRISTMAS MEMOIR by Will Ferguson (2010) Penguin Canada

Will Ferguson has been awarded the Leacock Medal for Humour for previous books, including his travelogue BEAUTY TIPS FROM MOOSEJAW which has some of the most hilarious situational pieces you will ever read.

I am always on the lookout for little Christmas stories to use as stocking stuffers and was pleased to find his COAL DUST KISSES to add to my preferred collection that includes Alistair MacLeod's exquisite holiday fare TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON. Like the MacLeod book that includes hand drawn illustrations, Ferguson's Christmas memoir has lovely complementary pen & ink drawings by Marie-Eve Tremblay.

In this charming little tale, Ferguson traces the tradition of coal dust kisses that originated with his Scottish grandfather and travels through the generations and across the continents where Ferguson finds himself building his own life first in the North, then in Equador, in southern Japan and finally in Cape Breton. COAL DUST KISSES is just the right elixir of nostalgia, forgiveness and storytelling magic.

SKIPPY DIES by Paul Murray (2010) Hamish Hamilton

Paul Murray's boys' boarding school bildungsroman, SKIPPY DIES, has been on my must-read list for several weeks now and on my radar since it made the Man Booker Longlist alongside Emma Donoghue's ROOM earlier this year. It's a brick at 600+ pages, so I needed chunks of dedicated time to inch my way through it--the first few days of our school break have afforded me that luxury.

Since I teach at a school for boys, I expected to find familiar territory between the covers, but not so much that I would feel Murray were writing directly to me. How often do you pick up a book and feel the author reaching out from the pages to make your particular acquaintance? That is what Murray has done for me in this big, sad, boisterous, beautiful book about the idiosyncratic community of teachers and students and the Old Boy network that supports both.

As its title declares, Daniel "Skippy" Juster dies and that death is no surprise as we see it played out in the opening pages. What is more surprising is the palpable tension with which Murray reveals the circumstances that lead to this athlete's unexpected passing that unravel over the remaining 650 pages.

As much as the story had me in its thrall, and the characters felt astonishingly familiar, it was Murray's language play and observations about human frailty that captivated me throughout the novel. When you spend your days in the company of teenaged boys, you will catch gems like, "Mermaids don't have beavers, you clown. Even if you were amphibious you couldn't have sex with them." Or, "If James Clerk Maxwell had said, 'more beaver, less maths,' we wouldn't have electricity. Maths and the universe go hand in hand." The president of Dublin's tony Seabrook School for Boys is "one of those sleek, silver-haired, ageless men who manage to connote prestige and power without having expressed a single memorable thought." And, working for a school where the parents are also the clients, you might agree with snarky Father Green, "Ah yes. Go easy: the motto of the age. For these children, as for their parents, everything must be easy." And, when Old Boys return to their alma mater for events, "each reintroduction repeated a truth at once shocking and totally banal: people grow up and become orthodontists." Yet, "once you've seen someone firing peas out of his nostril, it's difficult to take him seriously as a hedge fund manager." I know this to be true.

One of the final thoughts is given appropriately to Lori (Skippy's own dying wish involved her) who is puzzling out her existence: "Maybe instead of strings, it's stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken in a jillion different pieces, that's why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story...until you've got something that...might look like a letter or even a whole word."

This novel is not for the weak of heart. There are genuinely loathsome characters that will make your smacking hand itch. But, the way that Ruprecht, Skippy and their peculiar coterie of boarding school chums struggle to find belonging will be familiar and make you grateful that that particular tumultuous time is decidedly in your past.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

There are some books that bear rereading over and over again. THE GREAT GATSBY is one of them. It resonates with me now in ways that I never could have understood when I first read it at sixteen. And, I am gobsmacked by Fitzgerald's prose--its rhythm and beauty.

About the original cover (pictured above) Hemingway wrote in A MOVEABLE FEAST: "It had a garish dust jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it...for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story."

Read each of these passages and marvel at their grace and accuracy. Kissing Daisy for the first time is a religious rite/ communion for Gatsby: "He waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her."

When Nick arranges for Daisy to drop by his little cottage for tea one afternoon in order to meet Gatsby, he wonders if "perhaps my presence made them feel more satisfactorily alone."

Of the multitude of strangers who find themselves the beneficiaries of Gatsby's outlandish summer parties, Nick explains, "they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came to the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission." And during those very fetes, "laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word." Isn't Fitzgerald's prose gorgeous?

Consider this Romantic notion chronicling Gatsby's reunion with Daisy: "A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain...and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor." Or that, "No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart."

Reading THE GREAT GATSBY with the subtext of Fitzgerald's complicated life with his wife Zelda (and Hemingway's portrayal of her in "Hawks Do Not Share" and "A Matter of Measurements") adds another layer to Gatsby's desperate yearning to repeat his past.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

APOCALYPSE FOR BEGINNERS by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (2010) Vintage Canada

"The future ain't what it used to be," provides Yogi Berra in the novel's epigraph.

High school student Hope Randall comes from a long line of magical thinkers who receive prophetic visions about the end of the world, and when those visions fail to materialize most go mad and find a way to end their own lives. In the summer of 1989, Hope and her mother Ann load up their Lada with ramen noodles and Bibles and head west until the little Russian car conks out near Riviere -du-Loup where they move into a former pet store that still stinks like the giant cage that it was.

Hope doesn't mind being an outsider (she's a mathematics and chemistry genius AND a girl) and it's while sitting alone on the stands at the local stadium, probably thinking about David Suzuki, her TV crush on The Nature Of Things, that Hope first meets Mickey Bauermann who intends to save Hope from her crazy situation.

Mickey and Hope become steadfast friends and predictably lovers, but when Hope's destiny is revealed by chance on a package of Captain Mofuku, she decides she needs to take charge of their future and seek out the source through a journey that leads her to New York City, Seattle and finally Tokyo, Japan.

APOCALYPSE FOR BEGINNERS is quirky fun, with a dash of melodrama and bildungsroman thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Carrie Fisher praises Julie Klam's writing by insisting, "if tragedy plus time equals comedy, [she] makes the most of that equation."

I knew I would find Julie Klam's memoir charming, predisposed as I am to champion canine narratives, but I did not expect to do such extensive time-traveling through my own life by her side.

At 30, Klam is single, working part time in a make-ends-meet kind of job, consulting psychics and tarot readers to assuage her fear that she might well end up alone since sitting on her sofa and watching tv seems to be her preferred way to meet eligible men. Enter Otto, stage left. Otto is a Boston terrier that Klam adopts as her first own canine companion who shows her that she just might be able to share her home and her life with another. Enter Paul, stage right. Six years later Klam is married and has a baby daughter, Violet, who completes her family with Paul and Otto. They become involved with a Boston terrier rescue organization and their modest one-bedroom NYC apartment becomes a revolving door for the needy and dispossessed dogs who are difficult to place.

As Klam reminisces about the mastiffs she grew up with and the lasting nicknames that her brother Matt gave each one, I remembered too our first family dog, Nikki, a real pet who at the local dog show earned the ribbon for "the dog that least resembled any known breed" (though she looked most like a little bouvier with a rusty beard) and was affectionately nicknamed "Stinkhead" abbreviated to "Stink" by my brother David because of her horrible breath. Then, Mad Max, another pound rescue who had "Springer's rage" and had to be euthanized because he bit our father's hand one New Year's Eve, damaging the nerves. Most beloved was Winston, raised from an 8-week-old pup, aka Mister/ Mist/ the Uncle/ Mon Oncle, David's constant companion who survived the crash that killed him and managed to get the rest of us through those early days of our keen untenable grief. You see what I mean about time travel?

Like Klam I dreamed the existence of my own dogs, too. Or, perhaps, realized them from a figurine that stood on a secretary in the entrance hall of my grandparents' Toronto apartment: two liver and white Springer Spaniels, their feathery tails uncropped. Along came Bronte and then Doolin, now both gone. And, now Finn, a darling of a chocolate lab with a heart the size of the Chrysler Building, stretches across the queen-sized bed, paws flicking, chasing dream squirrels.

I know exactly what Klam means when she writes: "From Otto, who showed me I could be in a reciprocal nurturing relationship, to Dahlia, who proved that life continues to surprise, each dog in my life has brought me something or taught me a lesson that improved the quality of my life. I am richer in every way because of the dogs I've known." There's even the scientific proof for the doubting Thomases/ Cranky McCranky's who just simply can't see the point of sharing a life in this way: "When a person interacts with a dog, the central nervous system releases several hormones that cause feelings of pleasure--included in that is oxytocin."

YOU HAD ME AT WOOF makes a wonderful stocking stuffer, even for the most curmudgeonly grinch on your list. Follow @JulieKlam on twitter or visit her website to learn more: http://julieklam.com/

Sunday, December 05, 2010

THIS CAKE IS FOR THE PARTY by Sarah Selecky (2010) Thomas Allen Publishers

THIS CAKE IS FOR THE PARTY caught the attention of this year's Giller Prize jury (Michael Enright, Ali Smith and Claire Messud) who shortlisted it in the excellent company of David Bergen, Alexander MacLeod, Joanna Skibsrud and Kathleen Winter.

I paced myself with this exquisite short story collection, sampling it slice by slice, and you should too. I know these characters. I am ashamed to admit that I've been some of these characters.

Selecky has a keen ear for conversational rhythm, both natural and forced and is able to draw attention to her characters' flawed attitudes through their gestures that are at once subtle and sometimes grand. Like Lisa Moore and Michael Winter, Sarah Selecky writes fiction that feels like nonfiction. And, I believe every word.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

EVERY LOST COUNTRY by Steven Heighton (2010) Knopf Canada

Based loosely on an incident that occurred in Fall 2006 on the border between Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, EVERY LOST COUNTRY charts the courses of Lewis Book, a doctor who has a history of serving in difficult conflicts; his 16-year-old daughter Sophie who is escaping her own recent past misstep; Wade Lawson, an extreme climber hoping to be the first to summit Mt. Kyatruk; and, Amaris McRae, a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker documenting their journey.

Heighton is an established poet as well as a novelist and throughout this haunting novel there are many lines of found poetry, including the opening line that "air this thin/turns anyone/into a mystic." As the members of the expedition, including local Sherpa guides, acclimatize to the air pressure at their base camp, one evening Sophie perches on the border between China and Nepal to scribble in her sketchbook/journal and watch the sun set over the Himalayas "by four in the afternoon...the cold dusk already deepening...spotlighting the pass and the valley and dyeing the glacier as it descends...a vast, glowing channel of lava running down a volcanic slope." Sophie "sees the trouble coming because she knows her father."

Shots ring out as Chinese soldiers fire at Tibetan refugees trying to flee into exile (as 150,000 have done before them, since 1959, including the current Dalai Lama). Lewis, Sophie's dad, is compelled to attend to the wounded and in so doing finds himself marched away by the Chinese, a captive and political pawn. Amaris, too, with her drive to film the hard truth, becomes a fugitive as Lawson, Sophie and the others look impotently on.

What follows is a thrilling pursuit where each of the characters is forced to face their fears and decide whether or not they can find within themselves the moral courage to continue, especially when the odds of survival are stacked against them. In EVERY LOST COUNTRY, Steven Heighton has woven a tale where complicated emotional truths and even more complicated circumstances intersect and you find yourself wondering alongside Lewis, Sophie, Wade and Amaris when it is acceptable to be a bystander and when life, love and loyalty demand more. Don't miss this extraordinary journey where "desire is a narrative/that keeps you moving forward/even at a crawl/needing to find out."

Monday, November 15, 2010

BURY YOUR DEAD by Louise Penny (2010) Sphere

If you haven't found your way to the Three Pines mysteries by Louise Penny, you should. I've read all of them and find myself welcomed back to the fold each time by the familiar warmth and intelligence of Detective Armand Gamache and the antics of the charismatic locals: artists Peter and Clara Morrow; psychologist-turned-bookseller Myrna; cranky, but gifted, poet Ruth; bistro patrons and partners, Gabri and Olivier.

BURY YOUR DEAD relies partially on the fallout of a curious murder in the previous novel THE BRUTAL TELLING (the 5th in the series, recently named the 2010 Anthony Award winner for the best crime novel in the US) where Olivier has been arrested and convicted of killing the enigmatic Hermit. Gamache has doubts about this conviction, and, as a man of conscience, he sends his 2 I.C., Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, back to the sleepy hamlet to investigate further.

In the recent past there is a moment that personally haunts Gamache, one that leads him to take a temporary leave of absence from the work that he so loves and we learn in an intentionally suspenseful way throughout this narrative what actually happened to break him.

Ostensibly attempting to heal himself in the company of his mentor, the retired Chief Inspector, 80-year-old Emile Comeau who "knew the power, and length of time, Avec le temps, it takes to heal" Gamache heads to Quebec City for respite with his wife Reine-Marie and their adopted German shepherd Henri. There Gamache immerses himself in research about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at the local library and when his wife returns to Montreal he has Emile introduce him to the members of the Societé Champlain. Gamache also ingratiates himself with the Anglo community that is the Literary and Historical Society and they turn to him for help when there is a grisly murder on their premises. A man has been brutally killed in one of the city's oldest buildings, a place where the English citizens of Quebec safeguard their version of history.

Penny knows her characters intimately and writes convincingly from their perspectives in all of her books, but it's in BURY YOUR DEAD that she fully realizes her narrative structural potential. This newest Inspector Gamache mystery will have you eagerly turning pages through its smart twists and turns to a completely satisfying conclusion.

Check out Louise Penny's website: www.louisepenny.com

Sunday, November 14, 2010

FAUNA by Alissa York (2010) RandomHouse Canada

I've been dipping into FAUNA for a few weeks, taking my time, having surrendered completely to York's world. It is a gorgeous book both inside and out.

Protagonist Edal Jones is on leave from her job as a federal wildlife officer, having witnessed one too many humans smuggling in rare creatures and killing most in the process. One morning, as she's cycling through the empty streets at the heart of Toronto, Edal watches a young girl and her big black dog rescuing birds that have knocked themselves out on the city's glass skyscrapers. Edal follows Lily to a wrecker's yard and there meets more waifs and strays both animal and human who seek refuge in this unexpected haven.

York creates memorable characters in Edal, Lily, Guy and Stephen-- all vulnerable and deeply wounded--and suggests that literature itself offers emotional balm as they gather to hear Guy read from Kipling.

What most amazed me about this novel is the confidence from which the narrative unfurls from the perspectives of raccoons, skunks and coyotes as well as from the mouths and minds of the humans.

FAUNA is a billet-doux to Toronto's wildlife community and to broken souls everywhere.

If you are in Toronto, come to Ben McNally Books (366 Bay Street, south of Richmond) on Tues. Nov. 16th at 7:30 PM and get your own copy of FAUNA personalized by Alissa York. It makes a wonderful gift and an even better treat for yourself.

Friday, November 12, 2010

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen (2010) HarperCollins Canada

After hearing Franzen read from FREEDOM at IFOA in October, I was lured to crack the spine of his most-recently lauded magnum opus that landed him on the cover of TIME Magazine (joining Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Robert Frost and Stephen King as one of the few writers to do so) and found him forgiven by Oprah who made her own corrections by selecting this novel as her next book club pick, deifying him in the process.

FREEDOM is a brick of a book weighing in at 562 pages and it is not for those of you who are looking for a page-turner to get you through your next trans-Atlantic flight. But, it is worth the time and attention that it requires. Franzen is a literary novelist and he takes his writing seriously.

I'd already met Walter and Patty Berglund in an excerpt in THE NEW YORKER, so knew a little of what to expect at least stylistically of this epic narrative about contemporary love and marriage. There are the stereotypic threats to Patty and Walter's partnership: the younger woman (Walter's assistant, of course) and the college rival roommate (who just happens to be a minor rock star on whom Patty has had a crush for over 20 years).

The Berglunds have two adult children, Jessica and Joey, who do their best to assert their navel-gazing importance. And, though there are many tears throughout the narrative--most of them understandable and pain-driven--I didn't find myself weeping alongside the characters as I did when I read THE CORRECTIONS, Franzen's previous novel that completely exhausted me and left me gobsmacked in awe at his capacity to render fully formed such flawed beings.

Like Dickens, Franzen manages to write a convincing cast of supporting characters who weave memorably in and out as the story moves from the present to the past and back again. And, he takes on big issues increasingly relevant today: environmentalism, moral courage, responsibility.

There were times that I felt bogged down by detail in the middle of the book and frustrated by the narcissism of Joey (who certainly made my smacking hand itch) especially; however, I suspect being irritated is entirely the point.

In FREEDOM Jonathan Franzen has offered up a looking glass to contemporary North American culture and it is no small wonder when we shudder at the image of what is reflected back.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

THE BONE CAGE by Angie Abdou (2007) NeWest Press

Without my obsessive tweeting about books and following other like-minded bibliophiles in the Twitterverse, I don't think I would have found my way to THE BONE CAGE, dedicated advocate of CanLit that I am--and what a shame that would have been.

Those of you who follow CBC books and are aware of its recent request to find the top 40 Canadian novels/collections of short stories published since 2000 (as suggested by readers across the country) may have become aware of Abdou's book there when it leapt to the controversially curated Top 10 List where it holds its place alongside Ami MacKay's THE BIRTH HOUSE, Lawrence Hill's THE BOOK OF NEGROES and Joseph Boyden's THREE DAY ROAD--perhaps the finest novel ever written about the WWI Front and its consequences.

My copy of THE BONE CAGE came winging to me in the mail last week as payback for a copy of Alexander MacLeod's LIGHT LIFTING. How lucky I am in return.

THE BONE CAGE is a dual narrative told in confident third-person about two elite athletes training in Calgary with the hope of making it to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney: The Show. Sadie is a swimmer with an English Literature degree and Digger is an 85-kilo wrestler and both stand on the verge of realizing every competitive athlete's dream. Because Sadie is 26 and Digger is 30, both are also already beginning to contemplate what will become of them when their bodies eventually betray them, as all bodies do.

Abdou's description is visceral and precise and I found myself wishing I could work up a sweat at the gym as efficiently as Digger and find the vision to work through pain like Sadie does for hours every day in the pool. In addition to her focused narrative drive, I found myself admiring Abdou's original figurative language: "His words come from far away, and they barely reach her. She feels them slide off her body and land in a puddle at her feet." Wow. Right?

I hope that the current exposure on the road to Canada Reads 2011 finds Angie Abdou's THE BONE CAGE the wider and appreciative audience that it so deserves.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

WILDLIFE by Richard Ford (1990) Random House

I am on a Richard Ford reading binge, flipping through each book that comes my way. Plus I have my Grade 12 writing students delving in as well to short pieces like "Leaving for Kenosha" (short story), "A City Beyond the Reach of Empathy" (nonfiction about immediate post-Katrina New Orleans), and "Gov't On Our Minds" (about the US midterm elections & published last week in The New Yorker)

Everywhere I turn Ford's prose startles and energizes me.

In WILDLIFE, set in Great Falls, Montana in 1960, protagonist Joe Brinson bears witness to the dissolution of his parents' marriage. Joe's father, Jerry Brinson, was a man who "loved the game of golf because it was a game that other people found difficult and that was easy for him." When he is fired from his job as a golf pro at a local club where he'd hoped to ride the coattails of his wealthy clients and experience the promise of good times that their successes suggested, Jerry makes the unconventional decision of joining a group of volunteer firefighters who will be facing the wildfire that threatens to destroy their community. His wife Jeannette predicts that Jerry will "get burned up," since his only knowledge of fires comes from library books.

Ford creates palpable tension between the main players of this three-day drama and at the end of those days it's difficult not to believe every word of what has happened to the Brinsons, all of whose lives have been made wild by the events. What is remarkable to me is how Jeannette and Jerry find their way back after so much has happened to rend them apart.

Richard Ford must be read. By picking up WILDLIFE, you will learn more about yourself and your capacity for dignity, courage and forgiveness--all essential elements of being human.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

HALF BROTHER by Kenneth Oppel (2010) HarperCollins Canada

Thirteen-year-old Ben Tomlin is less than thrilled when his mother brings home an 8-day-old chimpanzee they name Zan. Ben is accustomed to being the only child of two curious behavioural scientist parents, but now thanks to one of his father's high-profile experiments, Ben has been uprooted to the west coast where a university has agreed to support the project that hopes to determine if a chimpanzee can learn human sign language. And, Ben finds himself in the sometimes uncomfortable position of explaining that he now has a little brother who is a chimp.

To begin with Zan is treated like a human baby, swaddled in blankets and diapered. He adjusts relatively well to his new life with the Tomlins and a caring group of graduate students that help to support him. It only takes a few months for Zan to learn his first few signs and he becomes a media sensation with reporters from TIME magazine showing up as well as a 60 MINUTES crew. It's the 70s and there are nascent groups of Animal Rights Activists who are becoming vocal. Could they threaten the fascinating project that Dr. Tomlin has created?

Being a teenager, Ben is also struggling to fit in to a new community of schoolmates and coming to terms with what he refers to as the "Project Jennifer"-his intention to properly woo one of his classmates whose father is his own father's boss at the university.

HALF BROTHER raises ethical questions about animal experimentation and there were several moments where I found myself weeping for Zan as he struggles with his own identity: animal or human?

Oppel clearly remembers what it is like to navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence and writes convincingly from Ben's perspective as a result. This is a novel that would appeal tremendously to Grades 6-8, especially as students are developing moral courage and figuring out what is fair.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

SANCTUARY LINE by Jane Urquhart (2010) McClelland & Stewart

Set today SANCTUARY LINE follows Liz Crane, an entomologist, who moves back to the family farmhouse where she spent most of her childhood summers in southwestern Ontario. Liz is there for pragmatic and personal reasons: she will be monitoring the Monarch butterfly colony nearby and trying to cope with the recent loss of her cousin Amanda, a skilled military strategist killed recently while serving in Afghanistan.

Just being in this particular place cracks wide Liz's memories of her formative years growing up with her cousins, reminding her of the stories that her uncle told of previous generations of lighthouse keepers and the Mexican workers who laboured throughout the orchards at harvest time. Liz is especially haunted by her recollection of a young Mexican named Teo, the son of the foreman Dolores, who held a special place in Liz's heart.

With the begrudging help of her mother, Liz is able to reconstruct the events of the final summer in the farmhouse, the summer that became the turning point for both her and Amanda in the way they were able to see truth for the first time. There are secrets broken and kept and it's only through forgiveness that Liz manages to understand why the people she loves made the choices they did.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

THE NIGHT SHIFT: REAL LIFE IN THE HEART OF THE E.R. by Dr. Brian Goldman (2010) HarperCollins Canada

Dr. Brian Goldman may be a familiar name to you if you're a CBC geek like me. He's the host of CBC Radio's "White Coat, Black Art," a show that aims to speak directly about issues facing doctors and patients. However, in addition to being a recognized medical journalist, Goldman also continues to work as an emergency room physician at Mount Sinai Hospital here in Toronto.

THE NIGHT SHIFT demystifies life in an Emergency Room and follows Goldman through a typical round from 10pm to 7am one evening, an evening where he deals with a dislocated shoulder, a dying cancer patient having a seizure, a stroke victim in denial, a paranoid woman, a pregnant woman who had no idea she was in labour, a victim of a date-rape drug, kidney failure presenting as a gastrointestinal bleed, a broken wrist, and a suicide risk, among several others.

Ever wondered about the triage rules? There are 5 levels ranging from 1-5 depending on the urgency of your required care and here are the wait times as well:
1: resuscitation (requires immediate, aggressive intervention) IMMEDIATE ATTENTION
2: emergent (almost same danger as level 1) WITHIN 15 MINUTES
3: urgent (vaginal bleeding, moderate head trauma, acute pain, suicidal thoughts) WITHIN 30 MINUTES
4: semi-urgent (back pain, headaches) 60 MINUTES
5: non-urgent (sore throat, minor abdominal pain) 2 HOURS

The book is rife with interesting anecdotes and statistics like, in Ontario, it may take anywhere from 24 hours - 3 years to have a suitable available liver for transplantation--that's quite an open window. If you have needed a push to SIGN YOUR Organ Donor Card, consider this statistic that reality check.

All of the chapters have engaging titles, but the most intriguing to me is "Moonlighters and Frequent Flyers" which explores the cases of patients who are prescription drug addicts and make their own rounds from hospital to hospital telling their embellished tales of lost-in-flight bottles of Oxycontin or accidentally flushed Demerol tablets. The frequent flyers of the title are alcohol dependents, some of whom have minor scrapes and bruises from a bar brawl, but who intend to be placed on a gurney in the hallway and wait for the opportunity to swipe bottles of hand sanitizer which they consume to become further intoxicated.

The range of patients requiring treatment on any given NIGHT SHIFT keeps E.R. physicians like Goldman engaged in the adrenaline-pumping, creative problem-solving essential to practicing their chosen medicine.

Dr. Brian Goldman may be followed on twitter @WCBADoctorBrian and you may meet him and have him sign a copy of NIGHT SHIFT at GET CAUGHT READING on Tuesday November 16th at 7pm at Ben McNally Books--RSGC's annual event that this year supports The Children's Book Bank here in Toronto. The event is open to the public. I hope to see you there.

Monday, October 25, 2010

LIGHT LIFTING by Alexander MacLeod (2010) Biblioasis

Yesterday afternoon I heard the IFOA panel hosted by Antanas Sileika and featuring Alexander MacLeod, Paolo Giordano and Karl Marlantes: word/sentence/book. Each of these writers is a little startled by the remarkable successes of their first books. I'd already dipped into LIGHT LIFTING, but after this incredibly engaging round table discussion was buoyed to finish it.

In their very public conversation, MacLeod referred to the opening paragraph of "Miracle Mile," the first story in this exquisite, elegiac collection. He wanted to write a piece that "whittles down, the focus becoming so precise that all other social context is irrelevant." He does just that in the moment just before Mike Tyson bites off Evander Holyfield's ear when "the tendons in his neck bulge out and his eyes pop wide open and his teeth come grinding down." That moment is pure instinct and rage.

MacLeod went on to say that "everyone has material, but you admire the way that they do it. You lust after style." As I was reading each of these stories that contemplates the ordinariness of daily lives, I couldn't help but compare their rhythm and pacing to Richard Ford's A MULTITUDE OF SINS. Each sentence is measured without being overwrought. And, it's interesting to know that both fiction writers read their work aloud to be sure that it sounds just right.

What especially impresses me about each story is the resonant final sentence that folds in on itself and gestures to both personal and shared experiences. Take a look for yourself at the final image in "Wonder About Parents": "Like a discotheque, maybe, or the reflection of ancient fire in a cave;" or in "Light Lifting:" "It wasn't right and I kept wishing for it to be darker so I didn't have to see it all so clearly;" or in "Adult Beginner 1:" "It rises out of the dark, advances over the water and swallows everything in its path." Do you see what I mean?

LIGHT LIFTING is the product of 15 years of hard work. I sure hope we won't have to wait another 15 for Alexander MacLeod's next book. Lucky for you, if you live in Toronto, he will be reading from this luminous collection on Saturday October 30th at the Scotiabank Giller Shortlist night at IFOA. 8pm Fleck Dance Theatre.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A MULTITUDE OF SINS: STORIES by Richard Ford (1996) Random House

Before the Opening Night of the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto on Wednesday night, I was already firmly entrenched in my belief that Richard Ford is one of the finest fiction writers scribbling today. Having met him and spent time speaking with him since he headlined the event that I co-chaired to support PEN Canada, I am also besotted with Richard Ford the man. The mensch. And he is one, full stop.

Talking about the role of literature in his life he said, it "gave meaning to my life. Reaching out both ways. You know, that rare understanding between reader & writer?" Well, yes. Don't you? And, "when everyone was telling me about the best in Mississippi during those days of segregation, literature helped me believe in a better place." At its best, literature convinces me of a better place, where others listen, bear witness, act compassionately, are playful, love books.

A MULTITUDE OF SINS is Ford's previous collection of short stories, (he has promised his publisher another forthcoming after his next novel CANADA, mostly penned already) many of which contemplate infidelity and its consequences.

What if you manage to sneak your girlfriend off on a trip to the Grand Canyon without your spouses knowing, but then you find her a little boring, and she just happens to accidentally die there? What then? What if your wife admits to adultery on the way to a dinner party hosted by her lover? What do you do? Do you respond honestly? Do you hold back your true feelings? Are you able to treat her like a lady? What if you still love your husband, but find him straying, yet know that he still loves you?

These are not questions with easy answers, but the way Ford exposes the underlying truths with candor and insight may just encourage you to be more sincere, empathic, passionate and loving to those you desire. Moral ground is messy territory, especially when your sense of right and wrong is put into such vivid relief against the backdrop of a Richard Ford story.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I will read anything that Andrew O'Hagan writes, from a short story in GRANTA to a book review in the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS to one of his gorgeous literary novels like PERSONALITY or BE NEAR ME.

THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF MAF THE DOG AND OF HIS FRIEND MARILYN MONROE will transport you headlong into the 60s: the nascent Camelot presidency of JFK; the brat pack tomfoolery of Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin; the Hollywood star system that transformed Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe into superluminaries.

Maf is the canine companion, a gift to Marilyn from Sinatra, who journeys everywhere with Marilyn in the final two years of her life. He dines at the best restaurants in NYC and LA, visits film sets, travels to Mexico to finalize Marilyn's divorce from Arthur Miller, witnesses acting classes with the Strassbergs and philosophizes all the while about high art, bedroom comedy, cats who mimic poet William Carlos Williams and the heady politics of change.

Written in the tradition of picaresque novels of the 18th century and with homage to other pets that have gone before Maf (Virginia Woolf's Mitz "who behaved as if the world were a question"; Maud Gonne's Chaperone, "a grey marmoset filled with Celtic lore and Hellinc rhymes [about] the impotence of human passion;" Greyfriars Bobby, "a kind of saint, really. And sainthood is the kind of fame you want;" Laika, "a brave Russian soul...[whose] memoirs would constitute a masterpiece to rival David Copperfield."), THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF MAF THE DOG AND OF HIS FRIEND MARILYN MONROE is a marvelous romp that will have you yearning for more stories of such wit, rife with literary and popular culture allusion.

Mafia Honey (Monroe's full name for her beloved Maltese) may well be my new best friend.

Hollywood has hopped on the Andrew O'Hagan bandwagon and will be producing Maf's story for the big screen, featuring George Clooney as Sinatra and Angelina Jolie as Monroe. It should be a lark.

A SECRET KEPT by Tatiana De Rosnay (2010)

If you love being read to, then get yourself a copy of Macmillan Audio's unabridged audio book of Tatiana De Rosnay's A SECRET KEPT, masterfully read by Simon Vance.

Protagonist Antoine Rey organizes a surprise 40th birthday getaway for his younger sister Melanie at Noirmoutier, an island where they spent several pleasurable summers as small children with their parents and grandparents. It's been 30 years since the Reys' last visit, the summer before their mother Clarisse died unexpectedly. Antoine and Melanie reminisce about those halcyon days, but the visit also triggers in Melanie a memory that unsettles her.

When Melanie finds the courage to disclose this troubled memory to Antoine on their drive back to Paris, the car veers off the road and Melanie, a wisp of a woman to begin with (and the mirror image of her mother), ends up fighting for her life in a provincial hospital. There, Antoine meets a remarkable woman, Angele, who happens to be the hospital mortician. And, although her work day is filled with death, it is Angele who infuses new life into Antoine.

Months later as Melanie is recovering at home in Paris she tells Antoine the dark secret about their mother, a taboo topic that causes both of them pain. As Antoine copes with other losses in his life involving his ex wife Astrid and their teenaged children, he struggles with the idea that perhaps he never really knew the real Clarisse and tries to figure out a way to make peace with his past.

Written with exquisite attention to the complications and messiness of ordinary lives and the human capacity to endure, De Rosnay shows that some secrets, no matter how painful, are meant to be told.

Monday, October 11, 2010

THE SPORTSWRITER by Richard Ford (1986)

Having read Ford's Bascombe trilogy in backwards order (because that's the way they arrived from my local library), I feel like I've been time-traveling back to the 80s in the often erudite and always direct company of protagonist Frank Bascombe, the sportswriter of the title.

At 38, Frank is a fairly recent member of the Divorced Men's Club, where he has met men his introspective equal, and one in particular who has become confessional in a way that makes Frank feel a little ill at ease, because the last thing he needs is someone else to worry about.

On this long Easter weekend over which the novel takes place, Frank finds himself facing the great sadness of his own past (the death of his young son Ralph) and longing for "one of the last moments of unalloyed tenderness in the world" that he shared with his then-wife Ann as Ralph died. In the present he finds himself at the table of his girlfriend VIcki's father, a likable man who has found God and even has the life-sized image of His Son hanging outside his suburban home. There Frank receives a call from the police that pushes him away from Vicki and all that she symbolizes and further into himself, stumbling temporarily into the succour offered from the kindness of a stranger.

And, as Frank concludes, "the only truth that can never be a lie...is life itself--the thing that happens." Spend time in Frank Bascombe's company. Your eyes will be opened a little wider and you'll be all the richer for it.

INDEPENDENCE DAY by Richard Ford (1995)

The middle novel of the Bascombe trilogy, INDEPENDENCE DAY, won Ford the coveted Pulitzer Prize. No longer a sportswriter, protagonist Frank Bascombe is divorced and selling real estate in Haddam, New Jersey, in the midst of what he refers to as the Existence Period of his life.

His ex-wife Ann lives in Connecticut with their two children Claire and Paul and her wealthy paramour Charley O'Dell. This holiday weekend Frank has plans to take the Ur-father/son excursion with Paul to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, stopping en route at the Basketball Hall of Fame to warm up. Paul has recently clocked his stepfather and has begun barking for attention, so Frank is hopeful that his opportunity to bond alone with Paul might be just what the doctor ordered, if not his ex-wife.

Humming along in the subplot is Frank's nascent 10 month-old relationship with his lady friend, "blond, tall and leggy Sally Caldwell" , and the very separate demands of hard-to-please real estate clients looking to get a new start in Frank's neck of the woods.

Frank's Independence Day weekend goes awry in a batting box at the Baseball Hall of Fame and he finds himself negotiating with his ex-wife for emergency medical care for their son and unexpectedly reunited with his stepbrother who helps to get him through this unexpected turn of events. Yet, by the time Frank faces the 4th of July head on, this most private of private men finds himself drawn to the parade crowd: "The trumpets go again. My heartbeat quickens. I feel the push, pull, the weave and sway of others."

Sunday, October 03, 2010

PRACTICAL JEAN by Trevor Cole (2010)

Trevor Cole reeled me in with his opening sentences: "You might think is a rather horrible and depraved sort of story. But that's because you're a nice person. The events of this story are not the sort of thing that nice people think about, let alone do."

Even if you don't admit to being a prurient sort of person, you can't help but find that narrative taunt alluring. Cole knows how to weave a tale and to sweep you along for the wild ride. It's heartening to know that his accomplished storytelling and dark humour have not gone unnoticed by fiction juries. Last week, PRACTICAL JEAN was named to the shortlist for this year's Rogers Writers' Trust fiction prize where it is in handsome company with THE DEATH OF DONNA WHALEN, ROOM, ANNABEL and CITIES OF REFUGE, all novels previously written about in this blog.

When I began PRACTICAL JEAN, I felt immediate kinship with the titular character as she witnesses first hand the horrors of aging and the mess that dying of natural and painful causes can be as she nurses her mother. Relieved by her mother's death, Jean resolves to embrace practicality and to offer "last poems" to her closest friends, so they won't ever have to suffer as her mother did. Determined in the rightness of her cause, Jean embarks on a brave new project and the sleepy town of Kotemee will never be the same.

Lynn Coady writes that "this take on female friendship gives chilling new meaning to the phrase tough love. PRACTICAL JEAN is Trevor Cole at his satirical best."

Believe her and believe me: PRACTICAL JEAN is witty, naughty fun.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

THE DEATH OF DONNA WHALEN by Michael Winter (2010)

Steven Truscott, Guy Paul Morin, David Milgard and now Sheldon Troke--all members of the pantheon of wrongfully convicted Canadians.

Michael Winter's documentary novel is a game changer. Reminiscent stylistically of Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD, Winter's THE DEATH OF DONNA WHALEN relies heavily on documentary evidence including thousands of pages of court transcripts, police wiretaps, personal diary entries, newspaper reports and private letters. Through a polyphony of third person narratives, Winter exposes the flawed process that led to Sheldon Troke's conviction of the brutal stabbing death of his girlfriend Donna Whalen.

This filmic book reads like a Hollywood thriller with stock elements including a paid informant, a delusional witness (convinced she could communicate regularly with angels), coerced testimonies, bungling police investigation, and family feuding, but all are shockingly real. There is enough emotional distance provided to stomach the forensic details, yet you are sure to come away from the story feeling moved to outrage or to pity. Most certainly you will wonder where the justice could possibly be for Donna Whalen's family.

Written in Winter's trademark style where you feel as much an eavesdropper as a reader, THE DEATH OF DONNA WHALEN is certainly worth your time.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)

Winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book and long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, THE SLAP is both profound and profane.

At a suburban BBQ in Australia, peopled with relatives and neighbours and long-time friends, a man slaps a misbehaving child who is not his own. That gesture reverberates throughout the multi-voiced narrative that follows. You might think it easy to take sides, but in a web of complex relationships, where each character seems to be protecting secrets from his/her past, morality is complicated, multifaceted and perhaps ultimately ambiguous.

Tsiolkas has written about domestic life in an unflinching portrayal of midlife crises, fragile marriages, and adolescent coming of age.

THE SLAP will haunt you long after you've turned its final page and acknowledge gratefully, like Richie, that "soon, unexpectedly, like the future that had begun to creep up on him, sleep did come."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

FAR TO GO by Alison Pick (2010)

I became a fan of Pick's prose with her first novel THE SWEET EDGE, a he said/she said story reminiscent of Carol Shields' HAPPENSTANCE, so I was curious to see if this new one, recently launched, met my expectations.

FAR TO GO is certainly a more personal book, inspired as it is by the journey of Pick's own grandparents out of Czechoslovakia during WWII, Europe's darkest hour. I was intrigued by the framing techniques used with lists of the Shoah dead and a short passage from an omniscient narrator referring to a train that "will never arrive," one that is both literal and symbolic.

The story proper finds Pavel and Anneliese Bauer, secular affluent Jews, and their young son Pepik and his nanny Marta with their lives upturned by the German occupation. Fearing deportation, they flee to Prague and secure passage for 6 year old Pepik on a Kinderstransport to Scotland where he is temporarily housed with a family that has real troubles of their own. Pavel and Anneliese write positive loving letters to Pepik, though are uncertain that he ever receives them since they never receive a note in return, unlike some of their friends whose own children manage to reassure them that they are being cared for by their surrogate families.

With the tentative thread of a present-day narrator, we learn stitch by stitch, story by story what became of Pepik, his parents and Marta in a way that is harrowing, occasionally hopeful, and always emotionally true.

We are often warned not to judge a book by its cover, but in the case of FAR TO GO, be prepared to do just that. It is even more exquisite between the pages than its gorgeous gem-toned cover art suggests.

THE LAY OF THE LAND by Richard Ford (2007)

It's been ages since I read Richard Ford (not since WOMEN WITH MEN several years ago), but where have I been? Find a finer chronicler of American mid-life anywhere! Yes, of course, Philip Roth and John Updike, but really, for my money, Ford is the man, waving his Pulitzer Prize from the sidelines.

In realtor Frank Bascombe, Ford has created a character as convincing and familiar as your next door neighbour. Maybe because I've watched friends die from cancer and I am firmly middle-aged myself, I find Frank's candour appealing. He's on his second marriage, has two adult children, and has recently been treated at the Mayo clinic with titanium BBs inserted in his prostate, to treat a disease about which he is not surprised at contracting.

Frank IS his name and unabashedly, unashamedly comments on the New Jersey life so familiar to him. We follow him to funerals, take walks along the beach in stride with him and his lesbian daughter, and worry about getting through the demands of a capital T Thanksgiving with all of the trimmings.

THE LAY OF THE LAND is harrowing, profound and outright hilarious at times. I now know what I've been missing and plan to reach back to the earlier books in the trilogy, THE SPORTSWRITER (1986) and INDEPENDENCE DAY (1995) to marvel again at the words of a writer who continues to hone his craft.

HERE IS NEW YORK by E.B. White (1949)

This little gem of a book is an encomium to New York City penned with great affection. White wrote these 60 or so pages as a favour to his stepson Roger Angell, who was then an up-and-coming editor at The New Yorker. He moved back into the city for several weeks, setting up shop at the Algonquin Hotel, that literary hub made infamous by Dorothy Parker. And, like the city itself that summer, he "should have been touched in the head by the August heat and gone off [his] rocker."

HERE IS NEW YORK opens with White's caveat that "on any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." Having just visited the city that never sleeps a week ago, I have to say that White's observation continues to ring true.

I loved his time-capsule anecdotes about the St. Patrick's Day Parade that "hits every New Yorker on the head," because "the Irish are a hard race to tune out." And, that the NY Public Library, guarded by those proud sculpted lions near Bryant Park, has a "great rustling oaken silence, with the book elevator (like an old waterwheel) spewing out books onto trays." Or, the "Empire State Building...has been jumped off of by so many unhappy people that pedestrians instinctively quicken step when passing Fifth Avenue and 34th." In parts of the city, "overhead, like banners decorating a cotillion hall, stream the pants and bras from the pulley lines."

White's diction is often poetic and always evocative of the particular time and place he immortalizes. If you are planning a trip to NYC, you really must take HERE IS NEW YORK along for company.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

ROOM by Emma Donoghue (uncorrected proof)

ROOM is an astonishing accomplishment by veteran novelist Emma Donoghue. It is narrated in a pitch-perfect voice of 5-year-old Jack, who has spent all of his life with his mom in a space that is 11ft X 11ft--the singular room of the title. Jack's fanciful way of perceiving his world is revealed by the opening paragraph:

"Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. 'Was I minus numbers?'"

Jack personifies objects that become imagined friends to him like Eggsnake under Bed and Door that "beep beeps and the air changes." They have a small TV where he watches conventional age-appropriate kids shows like DORA THE EXPLORER and SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS but also observes that on TV, "Women aren't real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren't real except Old Nick, and I'm not actually sure that he's real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer."

Old Nick is the villain of the novel, a sociopath who kidnaps then rapes Jack's Ma and she gives birth not once, but twice, in the cell that they share--the cell in which Jack was born, his "eyes wide open." Jack's Ma (only 26 herself), while fighting her adult demons, manages to provide a vibrant and creative world where Jack thrives exclusively in her company.

The novel is divided into five sections: Presents, Unlying, Dying, After, Living--all titles that Jack would plausibly give to each stage of his 5-year-old life.

Not only is Jack's voice believable, but the painful and tentative way in which he and Ma are reintegrated into society after his supremely brave escape rings true as well. And, the ending, well, it is as it should be where Jack looks back "one more time" and observes that Room is "like a crater, a hole where something happened."

ROOM is on the Booker Dozen long list and I expect to see it make the leap to the short list in September. Get a copy and find out for yourself why it is one of the finest novels of the 2010 publishing season.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

MOAB IS MY WASHPOT by Stephen Fry (1997)

My friend Jennifer gave me this memoir insisting that I read it and pass it along to someone else. I first became aware of Stephen Fry as an actor when he played the titular role in the film "Peter's Friends" (featuring his still best friend Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Brannagh and Imelda Staunton, the tony Oxbridge-educated theatrical set)and later becoming Oscar in the biopic "Wilde." From there I discovered his smart-arsy and clever novels with characters I would be happy to befriend in THE LIAR, THE HIPPOPOTAMUS, MAKING HISTORY and THE STARS'TENNIS BALLS.

MOAB IS MY WASHPOT opens smack dab in the middle of a train ride out of Paddington Station to boarding school when Stephen is Fry-the-Younger (to his older brother Roger) at the age of eight when he tries to comfort a new boy called Samuelanthonyfarlowebunce, who is a mess of 7-yr-old tears and good manners. What follows are Fry's vividly reconstructed days as a student first at Stouts Hill and then at Uppington, where he falls madly in love for the first time.

Too smart for his own good, Fry finds himself also in prison for credit card theft where he teaches an illiterate inmate how to read and is told by another that "a person like you shouldn't be in a place like this," a strong echo of what Oscar Wilde recorded in De Profundis when he was told by a fellow prisoner 100 years before, "I feel sorry for you: it's harder for the likes of you than it is for the likes of us."

Feeling he deserved the time in prison, Fry emerges with a year's probation and applies himself to his high school exams at the government-funded city school and finds himself offered a scholarship to Queen's College, Cambridge where he'll meet Hugh Laurie and begin a fruitful creative partnership that endures today.

By the end of this memoir, you'll have seen Fry "at [his] washpot scrubbing at the grime of years," and "feeling slightly less dirty about the first twenty years of [his] life. The second twenty, now that is another story."

Written with humility, candour and self-deprecating good humour MOAB IS MY WASHPOT is a compelling read.

JOYNER'S DREAM by Sylvia Tyson (from the manuscript) forthcoming 2011

Iconic folk musician Sylvia Tyson has penned her first novel and boy is it worth your time.

JOYNER'S DREAM is framed by the present-day narrative of Leslie Fitzhelm, the middle-aged son who has unexpectedly inherited a legacy of secrets and stories when he is reunited with his estranged father in the weeks before his father's death. The conceit is that there is a journal passed down from generation to generation that fills in the details about the contents of "Old Nick's" casket--he's a revered fiddle, if you're wondering.

I especially enjoyed the musical references and the way that the narrative seems to connect seamlessly from generation to generation. Set in Toronto's tony Rosedale neighborhood and in mostly rural England in the 18th-19th-20th centuries, Tyson uses regional dialect sparingly--only to maintain secrecy about Beth's true relationship to Lady Blackwood, her birth mother.

There are reassuring themes that family is who loves you and that stories matter as our way of defining ourselves, providing a legacy and connecting to the wider world.

I got a kick out of the books that the characters read--a decidedly literary set (Jonathan Swift, Thomas Hardy, Sinclair Lewis, and James Joyce), and hope that the end papers will include a hand drawn copy of the composition that gives the book its title when it is published in 2011.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

THE SUMMER WE READ GATSBY by Danielle Ganeck (2010)

When half sisters Cassie and Peck unexpectedly inherit their beloved Aunt Lydia's summer place in the Hamptons, they spend a month together under the same roof for the first time in their lives.

The ramshackle Fool's House is full of separate memories for the girls but shared items that remind them of Lydia's big personality, including an abstract painting initialed to Lydia from J.P. (that might just turn out to be from the paintbrush of Jackson Pollock), and her hardcover edition of The Great Gatsby, her favourite novel by her very favourite writer, an obsession that enables Cassie to crack the code for the safe.

Supported by gregarious characters including a gay next-door neighbour, a quirky artist-in-residence (a Fool himself), fashionina friends of Peck, a rich former beau with vulgar and outlandish taste and a handsome and attentive architect, THE SUMMER WE READ GATSBY will make you feel a part of the eccentric coterie and make you yearn for more of their company.

If you're looking for a fresh voice and a fast-paced engaging read that will have you also flipping the pages of Fitzgerald's American masterpiece, you really must get yourself a copy of THE SUMMER WE READ GATSBY.

Monday, August 23, 2010


This eagerly-anticipated novel follows on the heels of Gibb's best-selling, Trillium Award-winning SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY, a book of rare intelligence and emotional truth. THE BEAUTY OF HUMANITY MOVEMENT is in every way as profound and affecting as SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY.

Set in contemporary Vietnam, it features a memorable cast of hardworking locals including Tu, a guide for English-speaking tourists, his father Binh, and the iconic Old Man Hung, a travelling pho seller whose connection to the past unites them and Maggie Ly, a Vietnamese-born, American-educated Art Historian who is curating the Metropole Hotel's contemporary art collection for very personal reasons.

Through a masterfully crafted third-person perspective, each of the characters becomes the reader's intimate and Gibb presents the gritty heart of Vietnam--rife with sights and smells and sounds--so convincingly written that it feels as though you've made the journey there alongside Hung, "wondering whether this is the afterlife or the present life."

Read THE BEAUTY OF HUMANITY MOVEMENT, especially if you care about freedom of expression, the lasting importance of art, and the value of true friendship.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

SEVEN YEAR SWITCH by Claire Cook (2010)

This confection of a novel is perfect fodder for a screen adaptation by Nancy Meyers (think It's Complicated for the 40-something set) with leads played by Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Garner, Gwyneth Paltrow and Greg Kinnear.

At the outset Jill Murray has finally discovered how to manage raising her 10-yr-old daughter Anastasia on her own, while her ex-husband gallivants in Africa nurturing his social conscience but ignoring his family responsibilities. Jill teaches cross-cultural cooking classes at the local community centre where her senior clients show their weekly appreciation for her talents and she freelances as a consultant for Great Girlfriend Getaways, a travel company that caters exclusively to women.

When Jill meets a potential independent client named Billy Sanders who plans to hire her to help finesse a business opportunity in Japan, she discovers that she just might have more than professional feelings for him. And, those feelings become complicated when her ex-husband Seth decides to breeze back into her life, arriving with fresh flowers and take-out Thai to smooth the way.

Jill's boss convinces her to do something finally for herself and it is on this Costa Rican Great Girlfriends Getaway excursion that Jill figures out how she'll move forward with Billy and Seth.

As we head into the final week of summer, it seems to me that reading Claire Cook is a perfect way to lighten your heart as you find yourself cheering for her always-plucky protagonists.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Finding a new James Lee Burke title is like finding your way home again to your own chosen dysfunctional family. Dave, Molly and Alafair Robicheaux and Clete Purcel and Helen Soileau are always reassuring in their stubborn, steadfast and supremely human ways.

At the outset of this compelling story, Det. Dave Robicheaux is driven to figure out who brutally murdered seven young women in neighboring Jefferson Davis Parish. One suspect, Herman Stanga(a generally despised pimp and crack dealer)turns up dead soon after Clete typically takes the law into his own hands and beats Stanga in front of many witnesses.

Stakes are raised when Dave's daughter Alafair, on leave from Stanford Law to finish her first novel, cozies up to known Louisiana toady Kermit Abelard and finds herself in the creepy company of ex-con turned bestselling novelist Robert Weingart and is conveniently placed within his toxic reach.

THE GLASS RAINBOW is as much a story of the contemporary American South and its ingrained attitudes regarding race, wealth and history as it is a smart, stomach-churning thriller that secures James Lee Burke's reputation as a master of the genre.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

ADVICE FOR ITALIAN BOYS by Anne Giardini (2009)

Reading this novel has made me think about the genetic predisposition for talent. Giardini is the lawyer daughter of esteemed Canadian novelist Carol Shields, who won the Pulitzer Prize for THE STONE DIARIES. Both women write with such grace about the wonder in the ordinariness of our daily lives.

Nicolo Pavone is the protagonist of this finely wrought portrait of a close-knit Italian Catholic family that includes 40-something parents who dance the waltz, foxtrot and quick step as a method of birth control, a brother who marries his high-school girlfriend because it's the right thing to do when she finds herself pregnant at 18 like many of her sisters, and Nonna, the paternal grandmother who provides the proverbial advice to anyone who will listen.

Some of the delectable aphorisms Nonna recites include, "Priests and kicks in the backside, blessed is he who has neither one; "something that is born a circle can't die a square; and "tears for the dead are wasted."

Anne Giardini has certainly followed in her own mother's literary footsteps. ADVICE FOR ITALIAN BOYS is as cunning and sweet and tenderhearted a novel as any one Carol Shields ever penned.

Monday, August 16, 2010

THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger ( 2003 unabridged audio)

This edition of the best-selling novel is beautifully read and acted by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow who play Henry and Clare and a supporting cast of characters including each others' parents, a Korean housekeeper, best friends Gomez and Cherisse and their time-traveling daughter Alba.

Clare meets Henry when she's six and he is 36 when he appears naked in the field by her family mansion outside of Chicago in 1977. A curious girl with a robust imagination, Clare accepts Henry's account of time traveling when he confides in her and trusts that he will reappear in her life on the dates he has provided.

Because Henry not only knows the future, but has been there, he's able to tell Clare that they will marry, though as with most slips involving their shared future, he refuses to tell her when. Henry uses his future experience to protect Clare and their closest friends from knowing tragedy before it happens, because, as he insists, knowing that immense sadness is in store does not prevent it from occurring.

Even once Clare and Henry start to build a life together as adults and she embraces her life as an artist and he works in the special collections at the infamous Newberry Library in Chicago, Henry's disappearances continue to be unpredictable and last any where from a handful of time to several weeks and Clare must learn to take these at times harrowing and amusing journeys in stride.

Desperate to carve out what they can of normal life by pursuing familiar middle-class goals like rewarding jobs and good friends, Henry and Clare cannot control what is destined to happen. In spite of the time-traveling conceit which I am willing to suspend my disbelief and believe (as in Jasper Fforde's novels THE EYRE AFFAIR and LOST IN A GOOD BOOK), Clare and Henry's love story remains unforgettable.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

BLOOD RED by Quintin Jardine (2009)

Primavera Blackstone is an attractive widow in her early forties who has abandoned Scotland for the bucolic Catalan coast of Spain where she is raising her 8-year-old son Tom in a village called St. Marti d'Empuries. There, Primavera and Tom have carved out a pleasant life with other UK expats and locals, including Fr. Gerard, the village priest and next-door neighbour.

Having been married to a famous movie star, Primavera is happy to have found a quieter, gentler place to single-parent her only child, himself a gregarious and sweetnatured boy who is happy to please just about any adult who asks.

When a local town councillor dies suddenly, fingers are pointed at Primavera, who had had a public disagreement with the misanthrop in the days before his death. In fact, she'd even agreed to his demand for extortion (because she could well afford it and because she knew such an agreement would knock him off balance) in order to help her friend Ben with his plans for a wine fair in the public square. Then, the mayor's mother is found bound and strangled in Primavera's garage. It's clear that somebody is trying to frame her, but who? And why?

Fr. Gerard insists that Primavera disappear while the police continue to bungle their investigation and he arranges for her to stay at his home in Granada, where his equally handsome pilot brother agrees to watch over her to keep her safe.

However, Primavera isn't content to sit still for long and reaches out to a long-time friend for support, a security specialist who has more than one trick up his sleeve. When circumstances surrounding a cold case present themselves, Primavera realizes that more than her own life is at stake.

In a fast-paced narrative with both likable and loathesome characters, Jardine has penned yet another engaging novel for his fans who happily "queue around the block to buy his latest book."

Thursday, August 12, 2010


These stories and one Inspector Banks novella take you to the streets of Paris, California, Yorkshire and Robinson's own neighborhood in Toronto's east end: The Beach. Not only are the geographic locations diverse, but so are the time periods: 19th century north of England, post-WWII Yorkshire, 1968 Paris (surrounding the infamous student rebellion) and contemporary Toronto.

I especially enjoyed "The Two Ladies of Rose Cottage" and its essential reference to Thomas Hardy and his legacy, the story that won the Mystery Readers International Award and Going Back, the Banks novella that explores how difficult it can be to visit one's aging parents.

If you're looking to wade into Robinson's waters, look no further than this engaging collection that offers models of the crime and suspense genre of which he is a notable master.

THE ASPERN PAPERS by Henry James (1888)

I came across this novella by Henry James while I was reading John Berendt's book about Venice, CITY OF FALLING ANGELS, because one of Ezra Pound's relatives gifted him a first edition of THE ASPERN PAPERS, insisting that the story therein was being played out in present day Venice through the life of Olga Rudge, Pound's longtime mistress and aging guardian of his letters and poems.

James published THE ASPERN PAPERS first in the Atlantic Monthly and then in book form at the age I am now. It is a Jamesian tale insofaras the protagonist is an American trying to insinuate his way into a European community under false pretense.

Our unnamed narrator (who has assumed a fake nom de plume complete with engraved calling cards)is on the hunt for the correspondence between esteemed poet Jefferey Aspern and his one-time love Juliana Bordereau, an aging crone living in a palazzio on an out of the way calle in Venice. He is an editor and critic and above all sycophantic admirer of Aspern's poetry. He devises a plan to pose as a writer and to rent out rooms from the Misses Bordereau, the aforementioned elderly spinster and her middle-aged niece Tina who is both in charge of her care and in her care.

Through a convenient cash agreement for leasing the space to do his work with the avaracious hope of gaining access to the private papers he so covets, this quintessentially Jamesian figure wheedles his way into the confidence of the niece, believing his gentlemanly charm will suffice. And, of course, it is simply not enough to secure the deal he desires.

It seems to me that THE ASPERN PAPERS is a story for all time. Where there is greed and opportunity, people simply can't seem to help themselves.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

AUGUST HEAT: AN INSPECTOR MONTALBANO MYSTERY by Andrea Camilleri, trans. Stephen Sarterelli (2009)

When a colleague decides to extend his vacation, Chief Inspector Salvo Montalbano is forced to remain in Vigata, Sicily and endure the crazy-making August heat. Friends decide to join him and his long-suffering paramour and their young son Bruno disappears into a narrow shaft hidden at the base of the beach rental property. With Bruno recovered safely,thanks to a devoted companionable cat named Ruggero, Montalbano makes a grisly discovery in the false basement. And, that discovery leads him to unravel ugly truths about a cold case.

A couple of things irritated me about this book. One, Montalbano's girlfriend and her summer friends disappeared from the narrative as soon as the corpse was discovered, and two, one of the characters working in the police department and Montalbano's housekeeper spoke broken English as if out of Hollywood Central casting for stereotypes--or for those of you who watched The Flintstones in your formative years, as Fred sounded when he assumed the persona of Goggles Pisano. I like to think that the irksome dialect was something simply lost in translation.


Anne Enright's Booker-Prize winning novel THE GATHERING is one of the most beautiful and haunting books I've read in recent years, so I was excited to find this earlier one on the shelves of my local TPL branch.

THE PLEASURE OF ELIZA LYNCH is Enright's take on the Irish-whore-turned-Eva-Peron-of-Paraguay who became the most powerful woman there in the 19th century as the consort to President Lopez.

With the vibrant muscular prose and directness that I've come to expect from Enright, Eliza's story is unravelled skein by skein, moment to moment through her perspectives on love, sex, war and death.

If you haven't found your way to Anne Enright's books, it's time that you did.

Monday, August 09, 2010

INSATIABLE by Meg Cabot (2010)

Cabot has famously penned the Young Adult THE PRINCESS DIARIES series, but she also writes contemporary adult fiction like INSATIABLE (her new novel), which I requested from The Toronto Public Library once I began following Cabot on Twitter (@megcabot, if you're interested).

Publishers Weekly calls Cabot "the master of her genre," and I have to say that if that praise means her plucky protagonist Meena Harper would outvamp, outsmart and outdress the Twilight-series vampire-obsessed Bella, then that is enough for me.

Had my closest friends suggested that I read a book set in NYC, rife with social satire,featuring a psychic protagonist who writes dialogue for a soap opera, has a mutt named Jack Bauer and just happens to fall for the prince of darkness, a real vampire, centuries dead, I might well have scoffed at the idea.

However, Cabot's breezy narrative voice and ability to make me want to believe that Lucien Antonescu has more than a self-serving impulse for do-gooding while he's feasting on Meena or metamorphosing into a dragon, kept me flipping pages even as I found myself held captive in the heart of a real storm. For pyrotechnic entertainment and for everything you ever imagined vampires capable of (eventhough you're half-sick of the vampire craze), you just can't beat this rolicking read.