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 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.