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:

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.