December 19, 2010

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag - Alan Bradley

This book is the follow-up to The Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie which I read and mostly enjoyed earlier this year, and like the first book, it was a quick and easy read for me.

My biggest complaint about the first book was that I didn't find the main character, Flavia de Luce, very believable as an 11 year old. I found her much more believable in this book (despite her precocious chemistry knowledge, especially with respect to poisons). In fact, I found all of the characters to be better drawn in this book - the older sisters, Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy) are much more rounded rather than being purely evil; and most of the secondary characters seem realistic rather than just caricatures.

But unfortunately, the story doesn't hold up as well this time around. There are two mysteries to be solved that (of course) are linked together - a young boy died 6 years ago; then a visiting puppeteer dies in the middle of a performance in the "present" time (the book is set in 1950). While it was fun getting to know the characters, Flavia solves the mysteries mainly by collecting gossip from different villagers, without any excitement or true deduction. A bit like an 11-year-old Miss Marple.

There is a third book in the series due out next year - A Red Herring Without Mustard (the author seems to be into quirky titles!). As before, I will probably read it, but will either check it out of the library or wait for it to come out in paperback.

December 17, 2010

Kiss Me! (I'm a Prince!) - Heather McLeod, illustrated by Brooke Kerrigan

Everyone knows the story of the Frog Prince - a prince is turned into a frog and needs to be kissed to turn back into a prince and they all lived happily ever after. Well, this picture book speculates on what would have happened if the girl, named Ella, preferred a talking frog over a prince.

It is a real twist on the old fairy tale, as even the frog-prince decides that he enjoys not being a prince too as he now has time to play. The only problem is that since frogs don't have hands, he can't play baseball!

This book is by local Thunder Bay author, Heather McLeod, and I managed to snag a copy at the book launch before they sold out to give to my nephew and niece for Christmas. I suspect that my cousin who is raising her daughter while trying to avoid the "Disney Princess Hype" would also appreciate this story.

The pictures are fairly simple but they compliment the story well. I love how the frog pops up in every picture, even if he isn't directly involved in the story. And the expressions on Ella's face as she imagines what her life would be like as a princess are priceless.

So all in all, a great book in my adult opinion, but I guess the real test will come when the gift is opened on Christmas day...

December 12, 2010

Twenty boy Summer - Sarah Ockler

I am against book banning on principle. This probably goes back to my last year of high school when my English teacher announced that The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood had been removed from the curriculum because some parents did not think it appropriate for 18-year-olds to be reading. So I did what any curious reader would do - tracked down a copy as soon as possible, read it, and loved it. I suspect that this was Mr. Shortall's intended effect.

So when I heard over at The Broke and the Bookish about the effort to ban Twenty Boy Summer from a school board down in Missouri, I decided that it would be this week's act of subversion to track down a copy and read it. I don't think that any book should be banned - I believe, as my grandmother told me, that children (and anyone) should be allowed to read as widely as possible, and that it is only through exposure to a wide variety of authors, and genres, and qualities of books that you learn to determine for yourself what is good writing and what is not. I do think that in the case of young children that parents should play a role, and be aware of what their children are reading, and possibly to guide their choices, but every book should be made available to every person.

Ahem... stepping off my soapbox now...

On to this book. It is not a book that I would have picked up on my own. It is in the rapidly-expanding "young adult" genre - basically chick-lit for the high school set. I thought that it dealt very well with the topic of grief. At the beginning of the book, the narrator Anna falls in love with Matt, the older brother of her best friend Frankie, however Matt dies a month later leaving behind his family to mourn him publicly and Anna to mourn him in secret. The book did a good job portraying the different ways that everyone handles their grief. Anna tries to keep everything bottled up inside; Frankie enters a deep depression and then comes out of it as the Rebel Child; Matt's mother tries to cover up the emptiness in her life by re-decorating the house every week or so; and Matt's father tries to compensate by spoiling and indulging Frankie.

There is a very insightful quote about mourning towards the beginning of the book. Anna, the 16-year-old narrator reflects, "When someone you love dies, people ask you how you're doing, but they don't really want to know. They seek affirmation that you're okay, that you appreciate their concern, that life goes on and so can they. Secretly they wonder when the statute of limitations on asking expires (it's three months, by the way. Written or unwritten, that's about all the time it takes for people to forget the one thing that you never will.)"

This aspect of the book is handled very well, with the characters moving through their grief and coming out on the other end with some sort of resolution.

As to why there was an attempt to ban the book, I suspect that it has to do with the plot line of Anna's (successful) attempt to lose her virginity. And possibly the title, which has to do with Anna and Frankie's project to meet twenty boys on their 3-week vacation in California. And possibly all of the lying to the parents, sneaking out at night, underage drinking, and partying that all goes undiscovered and without repercussion.

This book deals with all the angst and anxiety and uncertainty and self-discovery that goes along with being a teen girl. But when held up to my personal "gold standard" of books dealing with transitioning through adolescence towards adulthood (A House Like a Lotus, by Madeline L'Engle), it falls short. I think because the girls in this book don't really learn anything or grow up at all through their experiences.

So do I think that this book should be banned? Obviously not. Would I recommend it as a "must read" book to anyone? Possibly if I knew a young person dealing with a loss (don't I sound old here!) since that is the issue that this book handles well. Do I think that it is a book that every girl should read? No - and I don't think that it is going to be a classic that will endure through the years and be read fifty years from now. It was a good read, but not a great book. That is what my grandmother's encouragement to read widely had taught me.

December 10, 2010

Essex County - Jeff Lemire

This is a book that has been generating a lot of buzz recently. I have read very positive reviews over at John's (Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3) and Wanda's (Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3) blogs; and now it is one of the finalists in the CBC Canada Reads competition.

I picked this book up on Wednesday evening, planning to read a few pages before going to bed, and by the time I turned the lights out, I was half-way finished this 510-page book! It was easy work to finish it up the next night. This is my second experience with a graphic novel (Persepolis being the first - though strictly speaking, it should be considered a graphic memoir), and a very enjoyable experience it was too.

There are 3 volumes - Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse - all collected in one volume with some "extras" (promotional material, early drafts etc). Tales from the Farm deals with a boy being raised by his uncle after his mother (who was a single mother) dies. He befriends the cashier at the local gas station, an ex-Leafs player, and fellow comic book lover. Ghost Stories is the tale of two brothers who play hockey together in Toronto in the early '50s, become estranged from each other, are re-united after tragedy strikes, and then become estranged again. And then The Country Nurse is the story of a home-care nurse, interwoven with the story of her grandmother, which ties the plot of all three volumes together.

I enjoyed the artwork for the most part, though sometimes I found the chunky black-and-white style a bit confusing (there is one picture that I had to turn back to 3 or 4 times to figure out what was being depicted). But it is the stories that are so poignant. My favourite of the volumes is probably Ghost Stories, and I found myself in tears a few times while reading it. And as far as the pictures go, I loved how the crow kept appearing throughout all of the stories. After all, what bird is more ubiquitous in Canada than the crow.

And that is, I think, what I liked most about this book - its Canadian-ness. I can't picture these stories being set anywhere other than rural southern Ontario. Farms, hockey, inter-generational histories, and yes, crows. Though I haven't read all of the other contenders for Canada Reads, I'm pretty sure that I am going to be rooting for this book.

December 7, 2010

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall - M. G. Vassanji

I love the title of this book. Vikram Lall is a boy of Indian heritage, growing up in Kenya in the era of the Mau Mau Uprising just prior to independence, and in the years following; and the title perfectly describes how he is caught in between the worlds of the black Africans and the white Europeans. Though he is born in Africa, he is considered not quite African, and while he and his family initially had British citizenship (Kenya was originally a British colony), they gave it up at the time of independence to become Kenyan citizens. There is a passage towards the end of the book that describes Vikram Lall's view of his homeland as he rides the train:
"He let me ride in his cabin, and as I watched the red earth pass beneath us, and the dense forest up ahead, and the green hills to my right where monkeys frolicked in the tree branches, and the odd gang of half-dressed children who had stopped on the paths to watch us, as the driver hummed "onward Christian Soldiers" while adjusting his controls, and the engine went clackety-clack on the rails, I told myself how desperately I loved this country that somehow could not quiet accept me. Was there really something prohibitively negative in me, and in those like me, with our alien forbidding skins off which the soul of Africa simply slipped away?"

The book is well structured with three longer sections and then a short section at the end. The first section deals with Vikram growing up in a smaller town as the Mau Mau uprising stirs around them. Vikram and his sister Deepa are friends with two British children, Bill and Annie, and an African boy, Njoroge, the grandson of a servant of the Lalls. This section does not end well, as the Mau Mau rebels murder Bill, Annie, and their parents.

The second section takes place 10+ years later in Nairobi where the Lalls moved shortly after the first section ends. Njoroge is re-united with his Indian "family" and he and Deepa fall in love. This section also does not end well, as the prejudice towards inter-racial marriage drives them apart, and they both marry other people.

The third section takes place in the decades following, as Vikram is gradually drawn into the powerful circles as government, slowly realizing that he is there as an Indian scapegoat on which to place the blame for all of the corruption taking place around him. This section (surprise, surprise) does not end well, as Njoroge is assassinated, Deepa's husband dies, Vikram and his wife separate, and Vikram is forced out of his country to Canada with his name at the top of his country's List of Shame.

The fourth and final section takes place with Vikram returns to Kenya in an attempt to clear his name and regain the ability to visit his home country. This section ends ambiguously, and I'm not going to reveal any more!

It sounds like a depressing book, but really it isn't. There are definitely some heavier issues brought up - corruption, race relations, post-colonial history in Africa - but what really shone through for me were the characters and the love that they have for one another. The different sections of the book are drawn together as Vikram tells his life story to a friend in Canada, with some input from Deepa and Njoroge's son Joseph.

The narrative ends somewhere in the mid- to late-90s, however many issues are still relevant today. There is still corruption in Kenya and much of Africa. There is still inter-tribal conflict in Kenyan politics that flares up every couple of years (most recently following the general elections on Dec. 26, 2007). Inter-racial marriage in Africa is still very uncommon.

I think that I liked this book at least as much as The Book of Secrets, and definitely more than The Gunny Sack. I suspect that this story will stay with me longer than either of the other two.

December 1, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson

Poor M. G. Vassanji seems destined not to get read. First he was bumped by my need to indulge in some fluff, and then when I got half way through the book, I received an e-mail from the library saying that my copy of The Girl that Kicked the Hornet's next was ready for me to pick up.

The e-mail probably couldn't have come at a worse time - not only was I half way through another book, but I am just coming out of my busiest week in quite some time. I have been out almost every night, and have had a lot of music commitments, all of which have eaten into valuable reading time! And I only had a week to get through all 563 pages of this book! (Actually, one of my biggest complaints about this book is the sheer size of the hardcover - my hands hurt from trying to hold this book while reading. But more on the length of it later.) But I stayed up until midnight last night in order to finish it, and will be returning it to the library as soon as I am done writing this post.

You may recall that I did not enjoy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (GDT), but quite enjoyed The Girl who Played with Fire (GPF). This, the final book in the trilogy, falls somewhere between the first two. It was not as slow going as GDT, but there was still a lot of detail about the Swedish government structure and history that I found myself skimming over. And while the plot centers around Lisbeth Salander (similar to GPF), she tended to be shunted to the sidelines (maybe because she spends most of the book in hospital or prison).

Overall, I though that this book could have used some better editing. As I mentioned, I found myself skimming over entire pages; and there was a whole separate plot line concerning Erika Berger that could have easily been left out without affecting the plot.

There are some aspects of the plot that bear some reflection given what is going on in the world today. Salander is awaiting trial and the government wants to lock her up in a psychiatric hospital for the rest of her life, despite knowing that she is not crazy, because they consider her to be a risk if she is left free based on what she knows. There is one section where the secret police are justifying to themselves that unlawful imprisonment and even murder is OK in "the interest of National Security". This inevitably draws comparison with what has happened around the world (especially in our neighbours to the south?) in the years since 2001. The ending of the book tells us quite clearly where the author (who was apparently the editor of an anarchist magazine!) stands on this issue. And it has been interesting this week, watching the aftermath of the WikiLeaks publication of classified documents and the Interpol warrant for the arrest of the WikiLeaks founder (wanted in Sweden, of all places). Though the founder is wanted on a charge of rape, and I definitely don't condone rape, but this book has triggered the conspiracy theorist in me, and comparisons with Salander's situation are inevitable in my mind!

B. Kienapple, over at A Certain Bent Appeal, said that she was disappointed in the ending as she read her way through all 3 books in the expectation that Blomkvist and Salander would get together in the end, and then they didn't. I didn't feel this way, simply because I don't think that Bomkvist deserved her. Yes, he's a great journalist. Yes, he's persistent and works doggedly to get the job done and to see truth prevail. But he's a player who doesn't care about the feelings of anyone else. It is all done for the glory of Mikael Blomkvist. His sister sums him up well towards the end of the book. "My brother is completely irresponsible when it comes to relationships. He screws his way through life and doesn't seem to grasp how much it can hurt those women who think of him as more than a casual affair." I lost count of how many women he slept with, but most of them ended up sad, lonely, and disappointed.

I did have some believability issues with this book as well. 2 characters surviving point-blank gunshot wounds to the head? And I lost count of how many hard drives Salander saved onto her tiny hand-held computer. How big was the hard drive of that thing?! It was also amusing at times to read about the computer use of the time. Anyone remember ICQ? And not a single mention of Facebook (no Facebook in 2004 - how did we ever survive without it?).

So am I glad that I read these books, and persisted to the end of the trilogy? Yes. Will I ever re-read them? Probably not. Will they make my top 10 books of 2010? Again, probably not. But they were good for an entertaining read, and Lisbeth Salander is one of my favourite characters in fiction in a long time!

Now off to the library to return the book before 9 and avoid overdue fines!

November 28, 2010

Seasons - Marianne Jones, artwork by Karen Reinikka

I have been looking forward to writing this review, though I should probably say that my review may not be completely unbiased - Marianne Jones is my friend's aunt and Karen Reinikka is her mother!

This collection of poems and watercolours began as a project to raise money for the Red Cross School Nutrition Program which provides healthy breakfasts, lunches, and snacks to children and youth in Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario. Marianne Jones (who is a published poet in her own right) wrote 12 poems, covering the four seasons, and her sister Karen Reinikka painted 8 watercolours to illustrate the poems. I bought the "deluxe edition" that is bound in four separate volumes in a cloth-bound wrapper, however there is also a "chapbook" available with all of the poems and paintings in one volume. It is a very limited run, with only 26 copies of the deluxe edition printed (I have copy "K"), and 50 copies of the chapbook.

The poems are all short - many of them just a few lines - but beautifully evocative of this part of the world. A few well-chosen words can distill the essence of the feelings that the change of seasons bring. And the watercolour paintings compliment the poems seamlessly.

The books were designed, printed, and hand-bound by Chris and Laurie Wright of BookWrights Bindery in Red Rock (just east of Thunder Bay), friends of the Joneses and Reinikkas. The feel of the paper in the books is so delicate that my hands felt almost too rough to handle them.

As we are rapidly approaching the shortest day of the year, I want to end this post with one of my favourite poems from the Summer section. I can just picture the drive into town along Dog Lake Road, late on a summer night when the sun doesn't set until after 10.

A Little Night Music

Headlights illumine the yellow snake
splitting the road that leads home.
Above the road stars dance.
They dance to
the jazzy beat of the night.
Dipper twists and jives.
Roadside grasses sway ghostly.
They hear
the far-off song of the sky.
It's a long way
from earth to heaven,
a long way
to catch
those crazy constellations.

This counts as another book towards The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

November 20, 2010

A Book-ish Quote

The other day at the gym, I was listening to a podcast of Eleanor Wachtel interviewing J. M. Coetzee, Nobel Prize winning author and professor of literature. One question particularly caught my attention.

EW: "You've admitted a fondness for narrative pleasure, but you're also proficient in difficult and demanding literary theory. Which kind of reading do you do, the first time you go through a book?"

JMC: "I read for the story and have no shame about that. I wouldn't want to make a distinction between pleasure on the one hand and thought or analysis on the other. In fact, the ultimate fruit, I would say, of a literary education is to produce people to whom intellectual pleasure is possible; and people who are not ashamed of reading for the story because reading for the story, to them, is not just unthinking fun, but it is an intellectual pleasure as well. Writing has everything to do with pleasure, and the kind of thinking one does about writing has a great deal to do with pleasure as well."

Yay! There are other people out there who appreciate a good story, but also like to think about it as well!

On an completely unrelated note, I also want to put a plug in for my baby sister, who recently completed her first Ironman competition. You can read about her experiences here. A bookish connection? Reading books allows us to experience things that we may never experience in real life. And since most of us will never experience an Ironman, reading my sister's experience will allow us to experience it through her.

November 19, 2010

Lucy's Launderette

It is pretty obvious that a book published by "Red Dress Ink" is going to be Chick Lit, and this book lived up to expectations!

The last several books that I have read have been a bit on the heavy and serious side, so I was in need of something light and fluffy for a change.

There's not much to report on this book. Anyone who has ever read any chick lit knows that it tends to be very formulaeic, and this book followed the formula to a T. Heroine of the story watches her life fall to pieces around her, hits rock bottom, and then gradually watches everything come together in terms of love, work, and personal fulfillment. A good modern-day fairy tale. In this case, Lucy is an artist who hasn't painted in years, works as a glorified gopher at an art gallery with a sadistic boss and hasn't had a boyfriend in years. After an affair with a cruel artist, quitting her job, burying her beloved grandfather, and trying to support the aforementioned grandfather's pregnant girlfriend; she ends up painting again, running a successful business, and with a handsome, rich, kind boyfriend. End of story!

A friend gave me her copy of this book years ago, and I was saving it for a time when I needed something fluffy and brainless to read, and it worked for me this week. The big thing that I liked about it (and the reason why Renée passed it on to me) is that Lucy is a very likable character. In some chick lit that I've read, I can't stand the main character, and want to tell her to just suck it up and get on with it, but I can see myself being friends with Lucy-in-real-life.

So that's about it for this book. And now on to something a bit heavier (another M. G. Vassanji is up next, though a big box of books arrived in my mailbox yesterday).

I debated on whether this book could count towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set, since the author was born in England, grew up in Victoria, BC, and now lives in Italy (I had a similar issue with Emma Donoghue's Room); but I have decided that it does count (the deciding factor is that it is set in Vancouver!).

November 12, 2010

Streams of Faith - Lois M. Wilson

Reading this book was like looking into a mirror and seeing myself reflected right back at me.

I bought this book back in the spring, and it has sat on my "To-Be-Read" stack since then. I think that I was avoiding it because of the description on the front: "Young women canoeists struggle with God, death, forgiveness and other important matters in their maturity." I was thinking that it would be just interviews with the women who had gone on these canoe trips 40+ years ago as teenagers, reflecting on their lives since then. But this book is so much more.

Lois Wilson has worn many hats in her life - United Church Minister, the first female Moderator (i.e. head) of the United Church of Canada, president of the Canadian Council of Churches, president of the World Council of Churches, Canadian Senator, Chancellor of Lakehead University, member of the Order of Canada, recipient of the Pearson Medal of Peace, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and, according to the book flap, mother of four and grandmother of twelve. Her full title as given on the back of the book is The Very Rev. Dr. the Hon. Lois M. Wilson, CC. Can you imagine introducing yourself at parties with a name like that?!

I purchased this book directly from the author when she came here to Thunder Bay in June to preach at an 85th Anniversary Service for the United Church of Canada (and my copy is autographed!). The day of the service, I came home from work exhausted, and wouldn't have gone to the service, except that I had read an interview with Lois Wilson a few weeks earlier, and I was determined to hear her speak in person. What an inspiration! She is 82 years old, but you wouldn't know it to hear her preach!

This book originated in several canoe trips that she took in Quetico Park in the 1960s with teenaged girls from the church here in Thunder Bay where she and her husband had a shared ministry. 40 years later, she wondered what had happened in the lives of these girls and so she tracked them down and interviewed them. Her interviews touched on many topics, and the chapters are broadly defined by these topics - faith and spirituality in a broad sense; relationship to the church (for both the women still active in the church and those who had left); life-changing experiences; forgiveness; death; feminism; interfaith dialogue; bearing witness in today's world.

There are segments of the interviews transcribed word-for-word in the book, but these interview segments are interspersed with Lois Wilson's own reflections based on her experiences in her multiple roles, as well as teachings from other theologians. I was baptized into the United Church of Canada as an adult - as a deliberate choice - and many aspects of what drew me to the United Church are reflected in this book. Social Justice, ministering to others as we would to Jesus, environmental justice, interfaith dialogue - all of these make appearances in this book. I kept finding myself nodding in agreement as I read; and I have now compiled a list of other books which I want to read, that were cited in this book.

One of my favourite passages came early in this book (and this is Lois Wilson's own voice at this point):
"It always depresses me to read that 90 percent of Americans believe in a higher power. My response is, 'So what?' Does it make any difference to their social, political, economic, theological views or actions? To believe in a higher power is a safe and comfortable thing to do, but it may make absolutely no difference to one's life posture. But to align one's life and work with the One who is creating and sustaining a just community is quite a different matter. 'To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God' (Micah 6:8) is one of the tougher implications of belief in a higher power!"

Now for all of my Protestant friends who are reading this, don't get me wrong. I do believe that salvation is "Sola Fide" or through faith alone; but I also believe that if we love God, we will want to serve him by serving others around us. Or to put it differently, the vertical relationship should be the model for horizontal relationships. Or to put it scripturally, "just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Mat 25:40)

The book was well written, and flowed well. I don't want to compare it to reading a novel, as I was much more deliberate in my reading of it, wanting to savour every word and reflect on each thought presented. But I couldn't wait to pick it up again, each time I put it down. I can see this being a book that I will turn back to again in the future.

Laura Marie - I will loan you this book next time I see you - canoeing and faith in one book - what more could you want! This book also counts as a selection towards The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

And now, I will conclude with one more quotation from the book:
"Humour is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer. Laughter can be heard in the vestibule, and echoes of it in the sanctuary, but there is no laughter in the Holy of Holies. There, laughter is swallowed up by prayer, and humour is fulfilled by faith. Laughter can't deal with real evil, such as I saw in Chile during the Pinochet years, or in South Africa during the years of aparthied. Laughter knows it is powerless to defeat tyranny or oppression. Only standing in solidarity with God in the midst of suffering can bring resolution and hope."

November 9, 2010

Giller Part 2 - and the winner is...

I've just watched the broadcast of the Giller awards show (live-streamed from the internet - very convenient since my cable package doesn't include any of the channels that it will be shown on).

And the winner is......
Johanna Skibsrud for her novel The Sentimentalists

And my thoughts are.....
I don't know.

This has apparently been the hardest book out of the whole shortlist to obtain a copy of. I haven't heard of anyone actually able to read it. My copy is supposed to be shipped to me some time later this month. I suspect that Gaspereau press hasn't been able to keep up with the demand generated by the shortlist, and will be even more swamped now that this book has won the prize.

So stay tuned. I'll be sure to offer up an opinion once I have had a chance to read this book!

November 7, 2010

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell

For some reason, this is one of the classics that I never got around to reading before now. I love Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy; some of what the Brontë sisters wrote (love Jane Eyre, dislike Wuthering Heights, neutral on some of the others); and have even slogged through and enjoyed some of Dickens' works. (As a side note, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë were apparently good friends.)

I approached this book with some trepidation, as it had been enthusiastically recommended by the same friend who recommended Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Wide Sargasso Sea. Well, I can happily report that she has finally recommended a book that I loved!

I was already familiar with the plot of this book, from the lovely BBC production (featuring the lovely Richard Armitage), and having now read the book, I can say that the plot of the film was quite faithful to the book with only minor changes. Basically, Margaret is 18 years old and transplanted from the pastoral south of England up to the manufacturing north (Milton, in Darkshire being a stand-in for Manchester in Lancashire) in the later years of the Industrial Revolution. She gradually adjusts to the different ways of thinking and acting, as well as the differences in how the social classes are defined.

Overall, it is a social commentary in novel form. England at the time was a very class-conscious society, yet Margaret tends to straddle all of the classes. Though her family has very little money, their roots are in the gentry, yet when they move to Milton, Margaret makes friends with, and socializes with both the factory workers and the factory owners. My favourite part of the book came when she is able to initiate a friendship of sorts between a factory owner and a factory worker. The differences between life in the "south" and life in the "north" are compared and contrasted (sometimes rather clumsily and pedantically, but at other times very subtly); as are the differences in values and class structure. The difficulties of the lives of the impoverished factory workers is highlighted, but the difficulties faced by the factory owners are also presented.

I loved Margaret as the heroine of this novel. She is such a human character - not perfect and not afraid to face her faults. She does grow and develop over the course of the novel - the only somewhat unbelievable aspect of her character is her age - she seems very mature in her thoughts and opinions for 18 years old. I could relate very strongly to her, and fancy several comparisons between Margaret and me:
- compassion for the poor
- working practically for social justice
- independent - not relying on anyone else
- not beautiful
- crashing through social barriers
- stubborn in our opinions

Anyways, it was a great book all around, and I'm sorry that I didn't discover it earlier. I've now borrowed the DVD of the BBC production from a friend, so having finished the book, I now have an excuse to sit down and watch Richard Armitage again!

October 31, 2010

Light Lifting - Alexander MacLeod

This book, the 4th in my Giller read-athon, arrived in my mailbox this week. It is a collection of short stories, and I found it to be a very fast read.

As I said in my review of This Cake is for the Party, I find it very difficult to review short story collections. Overall, my impressions of this one are mixed.

I found the voices in the different stories to be clear and distinct, and I found myself drawn right into the action, almost immediately. Each story is distinct, and as expected, I found myself strongly relating with some stories, and not with others. And similar to This Cake is for the Party, the stories were just the right length for "short" stories - long enough to really be able to get into them, but not so long as to be considered a novella.

My biggest critique is in the structure of some of the stories themselves. Most of them just seem to end abruptly, with no real ending or resolution. This usually left me wondering, well, what was the point of that?

My least favourite story? I didn't strongly dislike any of the stories. Possibly "Wonder About Parents". It seemed very disjointed, jumping back and forth in time between 3 periods in the life of a couple with no resolution to any of the story lines.

My favourite story? Hands down, "The Loop." It is the story of a kid (age 9-12) who has a delivery job on his bicycle for a local pharmacy. He poignantly describes the homes and lives of the lonely house-bound people that he visits. This really resonated with me, as my current job is as a home care physiotherapist, and I visit many of the people described in their homes because they can't get out to visit the physiotherapist. I never before realized how many lonely people there are out there. Really, a visit from the physiotherapist should NOT be the highlight of a person's week. I am going to give away the ending, because that is really what made the story so impact-ful - the narrator quits his job after a traumatic experience, in order to preserve what is left of his child-like outlook on life.

So another mixed review for this one. I have one book left on the Giller short-list to read, and I'm not sure if I am going to get to read it before the prize is announced on November 9 - I just received an e-mail from the store I ordered it from, telling me that it is on back-order and won't be shipped until mid-November.

This counts towards The Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

And so, with just over a week left until the prize is announced, my current Giller standings are:
3. Light Lifting
5. ?

October 20, 2010

Annabel - Kathleen Winters

I don't know why, but I had been avoiding this book. Something in the premise didn't appeal to me. But now I have read it, and I'm glad that I did.

It is the story of Wayne/Annabel, a hermaphrodite born in 1968 in rural Labrador. His father decides that his son is to be brought up as a boy and so surgery is done to turn him into a boy, and hormone pills are introduced at the age when he should reach puberty. As might be expected, Wayne's female side begins to shine through, both in physical and intellectual ways. I won't reveal the ending here, but it involves Wayne/Annabel coming to terms with both halves of himself; the male and female within.

There are lots of interesting issues and questions brought up in this story. The question of sex vs. gender. In terms of sex, Wayne/Annabel is both male and female. But in terms of gender, he is brought up as a male, but later in life she begins to identify more as a female. In the end, he comes to terms with and relates to both genders.

I also can't help but wonder what would have happened if Wayne's father had made the opposite decision - to raise Annabel as a daughter. Would the same issues and conflicts have arisen? I suspect that they would have been less traumatic on Annabel than they were on Wayne. Given the culture of the time and place, Wayne as a boy was expected to be almost hyper-masculine - out trapping and hunting with his father, while showing off for the girls. Whereas a tomboy-ish girl probably would have stood out less (though Wayne's best friend, a girl, was bullied and ostracized for being different than the other girls).

It also brings up the effect that having a child who is considered different has on the parents, though not in great depth. Wayne's father tends to isolate himself from his family, spending more and more time in the bush letting his mother raise Wayne. While Wayne's mother ends up sinking into a deep depression later on in her life. In the end, there is a role reversal, and Wayne's father ends up closer to him than his mother.

I found the first couple of chapters (especially the prologue) tough slogging, but once I got into the book, it was a fast and engaging read.

My only other criticism was that I found a few of the secondary characters to be more interesting than the more central characters. I would have liked to know more about Thomasina, a family friend and the only person in the community outside of the family who knows the secret. She was a much more richly drawn character than Jacinta, Wayne's mother, but she disappears for the entire middle section of the book. And my favourite character was Wally, Wayne's best friend for a year or so. She has the potential to have a whole book written about her, but instead, after a roaring introduction, she fades away until she is re-introduced towards the end of the book, almost as a plot device.

This counts as another selection towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set. And it puts my Giller read-athon on hold, as the other 2 shortlisted books, while ordered, have yet to arrive in my mailbox. I've started instead into a classic that I somehow managed to miss along the way.

And so my personal Giller standings, in order of preference, are:
1. The Matter with Morris
2. Annabel
3. This Cake is for the Party
4. ?
5. ?

On a not-quite-unrelated note, I was browsing the Governor General Literary Awards shortlist earlier this week. Annabel is the only book to appear on both the Giller and the GG shortlist; however the GG shortlist includes one of the Giller long-listed books (Cool Water by Dianne Warren) and the two books that I was hoping to see on the Giller shortlist (Motorcycles and Sweetgrass and Room). The Boy in the Moon is also on the GG non-fiction shortlist.

October 15, 2010

The Matter with Morris - David Bergen

I finished this book (my second read in the Giller shortlist) last night, and I loved it. I found the story very compelling, and well paced, and optimistic at the end.

The main character, Morris, is watching his life fall apart around him. His son was a soldier recently killed in Afghanistan, his wife has kicked him out, his eldest daughter won't talk to him or let him see his grandson, and his younger daughter, at age 17, is dating a man twice her age. He regularly uses an escort service (where he meets one of his son's friends who is working there); he is carrying on a correspondence with a woman in the US who's son was killed in Iraq, which may or may not develop into more; and he is on leave from his job as a syndicated columnist as his writing fell apart after his son was killed.

Morris is a very flawed character. In his own words, he describes the burden that he has to carry around with him, "his tremendous pride, his fear, his love of sex and high-heeled shoes, his envy and rage, his shame." And yet I was drawn to him, for who of us is without flaw. His flaws are balanced out by the good - his generosity, his love for his family, his introspection and wanting to make his life better. At times I found myself comparing (favourably) this book to Girl Crazy, another story of a man watching his life fall apart around him. In that case, I found nothing sympathetic in the main character, and found the characters to all be very flat and two-dimensional. In this book, I found the characters to be very well rounded, and with depth that is revealed throughout the book, and, well, human.

There are moments of profound sadness in this book. When Morris writes to Ursula about his son, "I am afraid of many things. Of sleeping and dreaming of my son and then waking to find that I was only dreaming. Of the darkness, of death, of life itself, of plodding through the day, always aware that i am alive when my son is dead." And yet the book as a whole left me with a sense of hope.

I'm sure that this book isn't for everyone. It is very introspective and lacking in action. However I enjoyed it unreservedly. I'm glad that it made the shortlist as I likely wouldn't have read it otherwise.

This counts as a selection towards The Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

And the current standings in my Giller reading challenge (in order of preference):
1. The Matter with Morris
2. This Cake is for the Party
3. ?
4. ?
5. ?

This Cake is for the Party - Sarah Selecky

This was my first read from this year's Giller shortlist; and I always find it difficult to write reviews of short story collections. Each story is unique, and it is difficult to see the book as a whole.

There are 10 stories in this collection, and I found that I read my way through them fairly quickly. Almost all of them were in the 20-30 page range, which I find to be the perfect length for short stories - long enough to be able to get into the story, but not so long that I get bogged down with too many characters and plot lines.

My one criticism is that most of the stories are told in the first person, and I found it hard to distinguish between the narrative voices in many of the stories. The typical voice is female, 20-30 years old, repressed and unable to speak her thoughts freely, and somewhat whiney. However it is the stories that break this bold that stand out in my mind, now that it is almost a week since I finished this book. The story featuring a middle-aged male looking back on his life with his slightly-crazy wife; the story about a teenage girl about to be orphaned; the young couple torn by the ethical decision of whether or not to report a friend's daughter to the Children's Aid Society.

My least favourite story? Go-Manchura. I just wanted to slap the main character and tell her to pull herself together and get some confidence in herself.

My favourite story? Where Are You Coming From, Sweetheart? From the first sentence, I was drawn into the story of Christine, and how inevitable the ending would be. And by the time the ending came around, I was in tears.

This is the first collection of stories from Sarah Selecky. I don't think that it is perfect, but I do think that if she keeps writing, her stories will get better and better, and I look forward to reading more of them.

This counts as a selection towards the Canadian Book Challenge at The Book Mine Set.

So... My personal Giller reading challenge (in order of preference) stands at:

1. This Cake is for the Party
2. ?
3. ?
4. ?
5. ?

October 5, 2010

Musings on the 2010 Giller Shortlist

Well, it's that time of year again. The 2010 Giller Prize shortlist was announced today, and so now I will attempt to read my way through the shortlist before the prize is announced on November 9. The only thing is, this year, I don't know if it will be possible.

I headed out to the local bookstore after work today, armed with a list of the books on the shortlist. But I could only find copies of two of the five books on the list! I suspect that in this case, it is because the books on the list aren't terribly well known, and thus weren't stocked by the local store.

The list is as follows:
The Matter with Morris (David Bergen)
Light Lifting (Alexander McLeod)
This Cake is for the Party (Sarah Selecky)
The Sentimentalists (Johanna Skibsrud)
Annabel (Kathleen Winter)

Of the five books, I not only haven't read any of them, but had only heard of one of them before the longlist was announced a few weeks ago (B. Kienapple reviewed Annabel back in the summer with a mixed opinion). And after only being able to find 2 in my local bookstore (The Matter with Morris and Annabel), I had to split my online order between 2 sites in order to find copies of the other three. What the?!?!?!? Two of them should arrive in time for me to finish them by my self-imposed deadline; but Chapters.Indigo tells me that Light Lifting may not arrive until mid-November.

There were also a couple of books that I have read in the past year that I was a bit surprised not to see on the list, notably Room by Emma Donoghue, and Motorcycles and Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor. However, given the propensity of book awards to list controversial books, I was glad to see that Girl Crazy by Russell Smith did not make the list!

So I guess the bottom line is that I don't know what to think about this year's list. I will read my way through the list though, and decide what I think for myself. In the past, I have generally enjoyed the Giller winners (generally much more so than the GG winner); however last year the format changed and the push was made towards non-Canadian jurors, and I haven't necessarily enjoyed the shortlisted books (notably The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon last year). It almost seems as though the flavour of the award has changed. But I really shouldn't pass judgement until I have read all of the books on the list (if they ever arrive).

Ready... Set... Read!

September 26, 2010

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Given that Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books of all times, I'm a bit surprised that I hadn't heard of this book until this year.

(Spoiler alert: I'm assuming that everyone knows the plot of Jane Eyre, whether you have read the book or not. If you don't want to know what happens in Jane Eyre, you'd best stop reading this post now.)

This book is basically the story of the "madwoman in the attic" from Jane Eyre, based on hints given to her story in Jane's story.

What we know about the Madwoman: she was born in the Caribbean; she is the "infamous daughter of an infamous mother", a dipsomaniac and insane; Mr. Rochester married her due to the plotting of his father and older brother in order to bring him some wealth not normally due to a second son; following the death of his father and brother, he brought her back to England and locked her up in the tower under the supervision of Grace Poole, where she eventually burned down the house and committed suicide.

This book goes into her childhood in a post-emancipation Jamaica, her mother's poverty and second marriage, her reluctant marriage and the subsequent fall-out. An interesting concept, but I found that the promise didn't live up to my expectations. Compared with Jane Eyre, despite being set in a much more lush location (the Caribbean vs. England), I found it to be a much less rich book in terms of depth and description. I found the plot a bit difficult to follow, though that may be because the first person narrator is an alcoholic and possibly insane. I also suspect that it would make even less sense if the reader weren't familiar with the story as presented in Jane Eyre.

It does point out though, that there are multiple points of view to every story, and calls into question why the first Mrs. Rochester became insane. In Jane Eyre, it is presumed to be genetic, however in this book it is presented as a combination of childhood experiences, culture shock, repression, and alcohol.

Much as I love the book Jane Eyre and it's heroine, I never had much sympathy for Mr. Rochester - he struck me as being very selfish, vain, and condescending. And what appeals to me about Jane is her integrity and how she stayed true to her principles, no matter how much it hurt at the time. I never quite understood what Jane saw in Mr. Rochester, and his character didn't come across any more favourably in this book.

I borrowed this book from a friend who had read it from school (the same friend who recommended Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to me); and she warned me when I borrowed it that she wasn't a fan of Jane Eyre, but loved Wide Sargasso Sea. Sorry Kirsti - this is 3 out of 3 books that I disagree with you over! It did however give me a craving to re-read Jane Eyre, so I think that I will curl up with that book next.

September 24, 2010

The Girl who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson

Sex and violence; sex and violence. If I had to sum up this book, that is how I would do it.

Back in the summer when I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I wasn't sure if I would continue with this series. But enough people persuaded me that the other books were better that I decided to pick up the next book in the series. And they were right - The Girl who Played with Fire was much more interesting and engaging than Dragon Tattoo.

The one factor in Dragon Tattoo that I truly enjoyed was the character of Lisbeth Salander, and this book focused primarily on her. It picks up about a year after the end of Dragon Tattoo when Salander cut off all association with Mikael Blomkvist. It is a more conventional mystery than the first book - three people have been murdered and the police, along with Blomkvist and his magazine and a private investigation firm, have to solve the murders. Salander is the prime suspect right from the get-go.

I don't know what it is about Salander that appeals to me. She can be unpredictable, violent, anti-social, and stubborn. But she has a strong sense of justice that appeals to me; and she is completely self-reliant, not depending on any other person. And she is stronger than any person I have ever met in real life. This is summed up near the end of the book:

"Over the years she had been mixed up in fights, subjected to abuse, been the object of both official and private injustces. She had taken many more punches to both body and soul than anyone should ever have to endure. But she had been able to rebel every time."

In this book, the reader gets to learn about her history, and what happened to make her the way that she is. (I'm not going to reveal it here - you'll have to read the book to find out!)

I can't always turn my physiotherapist brain off when reading. I found fault with the injury in The Solitude of Prime Numbers, and there is an anatomy fault towards the end of this book. I challenge anyone with any knowledge of neuroanatomy to figure out where the bullet is lodged based on this description: "The third bullet caught her about an inch below the top of her left ear. It penetrated her skull and caused a spiderweb of radial cracks in her cranium. The lead came to rest in the grey matter about two inches beneath the cerebral cortex, by the cerebrum." Hmmm.... last time I checked, the cerebral cortex is grey matter, so if it were lodged beneath the cerebral cortex, it would be lodged in white matter; and the cerebrum refers to the main part of the brain so if it in the cerebrum, it can't be near the cerebrum. OK, I guess that authors can't be perfect!

This book ends with a cliff-hanger, so there is no question that I will eventually read the final book in this trilogy. I can't see myself buying the hardcover, so I will either wait for the paperback or track it down from the library.

September 19, 2010

Room - Emma Donoghue

"Un-put-down-able" would be the best non-word that I can think of to describe this book. I can't quite say that I polished it off in a day as it was after midnight when I finally reached the back cover, but it was close.

In case you have missed the buzz surrounding this book, it is the story of a girl who was kidnapped at the age of 19 and locked in a room for 7 years; as told by her 5-year old son, Jack.

I heard Emma Donoghue interviewed a few weeks ago and she was influenced by the real-life story of the Austrian father who imprisoned his daughter in the basement for many years which hit the media a few years ago when the situation was discovered.

The book isn't perfect. I had trouble at first believing Jack's voice. For a child who is already able to read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and write and parrot long passages heard on television, his grammar should be better than it is. My almost-4-year-old nephew speaks better English than Jack. And even if he knows the word "sarcasm", I can't see a 5-year-old being able to recognize it.

But even though this bothered me in the first few pages, I quickly forgot about these quibbles as I got drawn into the story. And I really was drawn into it - I found myself harshly jarred back to reality when the phone rang; and I had trouble falling asleep after finishing as the world of the book seemed more real than the real world.

It is a very well crafted story, with 5 separate sections: Presents (describing life in Room as experienced by Jack), Unlying (Jack discovering that there is a real world outside of room - his mother undoing the lies that she has been telling him), Dying (the escape from Room), After (the aftermath of the escape), Living (learning to live outside of Room).

This book is the only Canadian book to make the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it on other book prize lists this year. Certainly all of the buzz that I have seen/heard/read about it is positive, and I have to agree with that buzz.

This is yet another book towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

September 18, 2010

Spider Bones - Kathy Reichs

While admittedly not first-class writing, I tend to rush out and gobble up each new Kathy Reichs book as soon as it comes out. When I read 206 Bones last year, I noted that the series had deteriorated from the early books but was looking up with 206 Bones. Spider Bones isn't the best in the series, but isn't the worst either.

It was a fast, easy read, and provided a change of scene from the usual setting of Montreal/North Carolina with a shift to Hawaii. And the mystery was a departure from the usual as well - there was a murder mixed up in it all waiting to be solved, but the primary story focused on trying to figure out how two bodies could have the same identity. That was a bit too easy for me - I figured out early in the book how the mistake had been made - but then there were lots of red herrings thrown in, and it was interesting to see how the characters proved it.

I have never seen the television series Bones which is (very) loosely based on this series of books, and for which Kathy Reichs is a producer, however there is a laugh-out-loud reference to the television programme in this book.

And if nothing else, this book has made me want to visit Hawaii some day!

And it counts towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

The Giller longlist is set to be announced on Monday - I'm looking forward to seeing which books make the list this year; and then the shortlist which will be announced on October 5.

September 14, 2010

The Gunny Sack - M. G. Vassanji

I first discovered M. G. Vassanji as an author earlier this year when I read and loved The Book of Secrets. So recently I went out to the local bookstore and picked up a couple of his other books, and have been reading The Gunny Sack over the past few weeks.

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this book as much as The Book of Secrets. The plot was much more simple and straightforward, and at times I couldn't decide if he didn't have a point to make and so was just telling a story; or if he had an important point to make but didn't quite know how to make it.

It is basically a fictional memoir, if such a genre exists. The narrator, Salim, is of (mainly) Indian origin, born and raised in East Africa, who ends up in
North America - a strikingly similar history to that of the author. Like any traditional memoirist, he begins his story by telling of his ancestors (the first half of the book), and then continues with the story of his life.

There were some aspects that I liked - the complex family structure with the story spanning generations; the fluid writing style; and of course I always love being transported in a book back to my "other home" of Tanzania. And the cover. If you compare the cover of this book with this picture that a friend of mine recently took on Zanzibar (part of Tanzania), you know that the cover picture was taken on the East African coast.

But then there were aspects that I didn't like. As I mentioned above, the plot is very linear and lacking the complexity of The Book of Secrets; and I also found that the gunny sack of the title, as well as the sack's owner Ji Bai, played only a minor role in the book despite being built up in significance in the opening chapter.

I am going to be generous though. The Gunny Sack was M. G. Vassanji's first novel, published in 1989. The Book of Secrets came 2 novels later in 1994, and is definitely a stronger book while retaining the writing style. I also have a copy of The In-Between World of Vikram Lall which was published in 2003 so I am going to hope that he continued to develop as a writer, and that this book will be the best of all!

The Gunny Sack counts as a selection towards The Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

August 28, 2010

Becoming George Sand - Rosalind Brackenbury

As a certified (or certifiable?) Chopin fanatic, I knew of George Sand because of her relationship with Chopin. So I was drawn to this book when I saw it at the bookstore, hoping to be able to read about the composer of the most beautiful piano music ever written.

Unfortunately, the reading of it didn't live up to my expectations. Rather than a novel about a feminist writer ahead of her time, her relationship with one of the great Romantic composers, and life in the rich literary and musical society of Paris in the 1800s; I found myself immersed in Chick Lit of the worst kind. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy well written Chick Lit at times (Bridget Jones anyone?), but this wasn't that.

I guess one of my biggest complaints about this book is that I found all of the characters to be entirely unsympathetic.

The main character, Marie, is researching George Sand in order to write a book about her. There are clumsily incorporated flashbacks to George Sand's life, but the main story focuses on Marie. And Marie's biggest problem in life is that she is trying to balance the security of her 20-year old marriage with the excitement of her younger lover. I'm afraid that I just can sympathize with a woman who complains, "In the twenty-first century, it seems to be necessary to lie to one's children as well as one's husband. What she is doing is simply not what married women, mothers, do. Not in this country, not in this town, not in this century, two hundred years after George's birth. When did this change happen? When did history turn over in the night and decree that adultery was a punishable offense again, punishable not by stoning or imprisonment, but by more subtle means? Being accused of cheating, of immaturity - the new sin - of being unfit to bring up one's children?" Call me old-fashioned (and Marie probably would) for thinking that marriage means something, including forsaking all others for your spouse; but when was adultery socially acceptable?

Marie does get her come-uppance - her husband finds out about her lover and leaves her; and her lover also leaves her to be faithful to his wife and children - but even by the end of the book, Marie shows no signs of acknowledging that her views may be maybe just a wee bit wrong.

And the characters in the flashbacks don't come across any better. George Sand seems to be quite stupid, while Chopin is weak and whiney. And as for the rich artistic community of 19th Century Europe? Lots of name dropping but never fleshed out.

My previously held views of the Chopin/George Sand relationship (and keep in mind that I am a Chopin fan) was of Chopin, the frail but brilliant genius who was bullied to death by the domineering George Sand. This book tries to portray Chopin as weak and selfish, who depended on George Sand to manage and plan and look after him. Who knows what the truth was. Probably somewhere in the middle.

Oh well. I am playing the piano at church tomorrow, and if nothing else, reading this book this week has inspired me to slip some Chopin into the service. Maybe one of the preludes (mentioned in this book) for the offertory...

August 22, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Let me preface this by stating that I am not a fan of zombies. In fact (confession time), I found the zombie scene in Pirates of the Caribbean to be so disturbing that I had to close my eyes and I couldn't watch it.

However, I am a fan of Jane Austen, and when a friend whose taste in books I generally respect (waves to Kirsti if you are reading this!) suggested this as a fun read, I decided to give it a try.

Basically, this book takes the events of Pride and Prejudice (which I'm pretty sure that most people are familiar with, either from the book or one of the many film versions), and sets it in an England that is under attack from zombies. Elizabeth, as well as being intelligent and well read etc, is also a fierce warrior, taking delight in beheading the "unmentionables."

The bare bones of the plot are essentially the same as in the original, with any possibility to include gore and fighting added in.

Was it entertaining? Yes, for the first 50 or so pages, until the novelty of the re-write wore off. I found myself missing the language and the subtlety of the original, as it tended to be over-simplified in this version. Not surprising though, considering the whole premise of zombies!

So I think from now on, I will stick with re-reading the original. And maybe occasionally drooling over Colin Firth in the BBC version!

August 17, 2010

The Solitude of Prime Numbers - Paolo Giordano

I love prime numbers. To me they symbolize independence - "I don't need any of you divisors to stand strong as my own number!" When Dad was celebrating his 61st birthday a few years ago, he felt as though it was a bit of a let-down after his 60th the year before, until I pointed out that he had to celebrate a prime year, as another one won't come along until he reaches 67.

So it was the title of this book that attracted me. This book tells the story of two societal "misfits" who meet in high school, and stay friends into their adulthood. Alice suffers a skiing accident and ends up with a lame leg (though speaking as a physiotherapist, I don't see how a fractured fibula could result in the degree of disability Alice develops - it isn't part of the knee joint and isn't normally a weight-bearing bone), then subsequently develops a severe eating disorder and withdraws from her family. Mattia is traumatized by the disappearance of his twin sister (by his own fault), and develops self-mutilating behaviours and is possibly somewhere along the autism spectrum disorder, as well as being a mathematical genius. He is the one who considers himself and Alice to be prime numbers, possibly twin primes (two prime numbers separated only by one other number - e.g. 11 and 13, or 17 and 19).

Interesting concept, but unfortunately it didn't live up to my hopes. I found the vagueness to be annoying at times - Alice has an unspecified disability, her mother is dying of an unspecified illness, Mattia moves to an unspecified university. And the book just ends, with no resolution - just people drifting through space and time. I also found the characters to be very two-dimensional (though this was probably compounded by the fact that I started it just after finishing The Diviners with such strong characters) and therefore hard to care about.

It was an easy read, and tugged at my heart at times, but unfortunately not a favourable overall impression.

August 14, 2010

The Diviners - Margaret Laurence

I read my way through the Manawaka books by Margaret Laurence the summer that I was 17, living in Rivière du Loup, Québec, staying with a family and learning French. If I had had easy access to any other books in English, I probably would have given up after The Stone Angel as I detested that book, but fortunately I persevered and each book got better (in my opinion) so by the time I reached The Diviners, I quite enjoyed it.

I have not re-read any of these books in the past 16 years, but The Diviners has been on my "to be re-read" list for a while and I finally picked it up this week. And I am glad that I did! Looking back at my 17-year-old self, I'm sure that lots of this book (and probably the others in the series) went right over my head, but I thoroughly enjoyed this re-read.

How to summarize this book in a paragraph? Now there is a challenge. Morag Gunn is born in small-town Manitoba; loses her parents at a young age; is brought up by the town scavenger (garbage collector) and his dim wife; goes to university in Winnipeg vowing to escape the life she has grown up in; marries her professor; becomes a writer; leaves her husband; has a baby with a childhood friend/lover; raises the baby on her own in Vancouver, London (England), and finally McConnell's Landing (rural southern Ontario). It is her search to find herself - where she has come from and where she wants to go.

I found myself really relating to Morag on this re-reading. Loved in her own family but socially awkward outside of home; moving from place to place in search of "home"; introverted and living inside her head. There is a great scene where Morag learns to cry in front of others - that was also a difficult lesson for me to learn. And a time where her daughter tells her, "You're so goddamn proud and so scared of being rejected," that hit home for me as well.

I went looking for an image of the cover of the edition that I was reading (Banatam, 1975 - Mum must have bought it when it first came out in paperback), but couldn't find it. But along the way, I learned a bit about Margaret Laurence, and discovered that a lot of this book was autobiographical - born in small-town Manitoba; loss of parents when young; early writing career; worked at a newspaper; university in Winnipeg; married then separated from her husband; living in Vancouver, England, Toronto, and rural southern Ontario. There is even an element of the predictive in this book as Jules, Morag's sometimes-lover, commits suicide when he has terminal cancer - Margaret Laurence did the same in 1987.

So a good book, yes; but I don't know if that will inspire me to go back and re-read the rest of the series!

August 8, 2010

Where God Begins to Be - Karen Karper

What a delightful and though-provoking book this is. I first heard about it last May over on Amanda's blog, and immediately went and ordered a copy for myself.

In 1959, at the age of 17, the author entered a Poor Clare monastery and spent 30 years living in community as a nun. During that time, she struggled with a call to give up the community life and the security that it promised, and enter the wilderness to become a hermit and trust in God to provide for her day-to-day needs.

This is her story of growth and learning survival skills (chopping wood, fetching water, killing poisonous snakes etc) as well as her spiritual growth (sharing what little she had and trusting that she would have enough; seeing the beauty and cherishing what she once sought to destroy - wild rosebushes in this case; patience and humility in learning to quilt; being still and hearing the voice of God).

There are several quotes throughout the book that sum it up very well:

"There where clinging to things ends, there God begins to be." (Meister Eckhart)

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, ... and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference." (Robert Frost)

"Your heavenly father knows all that you need. Seek first his kingship over you, his way of holiness, and all these things will be given you besides." (Matt. 6:32-33, a slightly different translation than the one that I am familiar with)

I enjoyed this book very much, and can relate to a lot of the struggles that she goes through - trusting that God knows what we need more than we do; balancing solitude with relationship; having the confidence to go into myself and evaluate what I truly think and feel. It constantly raised questions in my mind. What am I doing in my life that shows God's kingship over me? Do I trust that God will provide for me, or am I still clinging to self-reliance? Could I live a life in solitude? I think that I will choose to answer these questions in the privacy of my journal rather than here in public!

I had assumed that a hermits life implied total solitude, so I was surprised at how much of the book dealt with building relationships with others (not just God). From the two Franciscan sisters living down the road, to her cat, to other neighbours who always showed up with exactly what was needed, when it was needed. After this book arrived, but before I had a chance to read it, I loaned it to a Very Catholic friend of mine (waves to Sarah if you are reading this!) who said that she enjoyed the book, but that it wasn't what she was expecting. I wonder if it was this aspect that she meant?

This is a book that I think is going to stay with me, and that I will choose to re-read on a regular basis. There were just so many messages in it for me.

August 7, 2010

Motorcycles and Sweetgrass - Drew Hayden Taylor

I loved this book! It had an original plot, it made me laugh out loud, and it was paced so that I couldn't put it down.

The story takes place in Otter Lake, a fictional reserve located (to the best of my reckoning) several hundred kilometers north of Toronto. Things get shaken up when Nanabush, the trickster in Ojibwe mythology, rides into town on a 1953 Indian Chief Motorcycle, disguised as a tall, muscular, White man with long blonde hair and eyes that change from blue to green to hazel to amber, depending on his mood (it is implied that this disguise was based on a Harlequin cover!). He has come to say goodbye to his former love, Lillian who is dying; and then stays around to seduce Maggie, Lillian's daughter and the chief of Otter Lake, and to create mischief in and bring magic to the community. Maggie's son Virgil doesn't trust this stranger, and enlists the help of Wayne, Maggie's recluse brother who lives on an island developing an aboriginal martial art, to fight off the stranger.

Now how's that for a plot summary?! It reads at times as a fairy tale, at times as a morality tale, and at times as a straight novel. I was reminded at times of Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass with the absurdity and delight of pure nonsense.

In the past couple of years, I have read several great books by Canadian First Nations authors (Kiss of the Fur Queen - Thomson Highway; Through Black Spruce - Joseph Boyden; Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden). This one was much lighter in tone than the others, but still touched on some of the same heavier issues - the residential school experience and legacy, abuse, current day conflict and land issues, education. There is a section discussing the difference between Anishnawbe and First Nations, and I did notice that White is always capitalized (and why not - after all, First Nations / Anishnawbe / Indian is always capitalized).

I think that this book will go onto my "to be re-read" list, and it will probably make my "Top Reads of 2010" list at the end of the year. It also counts as a selection for the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

August 1, 2010

The Boy in the Moon - Ian Brown

This book initially grabbed my attention last winter when it was nominated for, and won, the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. The topic fascinated me, and as a prize winner, I was pretty sure that it would be well-written.

But the real impetus for picking it up this month was that Ian Brown was going to be at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival in August, and I had signed up to attend his session. Unfortunately, when I got home last week, I had a phone message from the festival telling me that Ian Brown was not going to be able to attend the festival, and I would have to choose a different session. I am disappointed about this (his session was the primary reason that I had signed up to attend the festival), but very glad that I have read this book.

Fourteen years ago, on June 23, 1996, Walker Brown was born with severe physical and intellectual disabilities that were later diagnosed as cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC), a very rare genetic condition. This book is his story as told by his father; as well as his father's story of trying to get to know and understand his son.

Walker's father does everything he can; from genetic testing, to meeting with researchers, to an MRI scan, to meeting with parents of other children with CFC; in order to learn about Walker and his abilities and disabilities. But in the end, it is actually his interactions with Walker and the people around him who love and care for him, that teach him about his son.

What really got to me was the poignancy of this story. The joy and the despair (at times) and the love and the sorrow. I had tears running down my face at times; and I laughed out loud at times. And the authors unique voice shone through at all times.

What I didn't like about this book was that I couldn't determine any structure. The chapter divisions seemed almost random; and the story was told neither linearly nor by topic. I don't know if this was deliberate, but I finished the book feeling as though I had been going around in circles and arriving (almost) back at the beginning again. I say almost because along the way, the author does have several insights into himself and his son.

But what I will remember from this book is not the structure, but Walker and the people who love him. I am going to close with a long-ish passage from the end of the book that seemed best to convey the message of Walker and his story.

These days, I have a fantasy of my own. In my fantasy, Walker and people like him live in a L'Arche-like community, with the help of assistants. It's a beautiful place, in a beautiful spot, with a view of the sea or the mountains, because for once, in this place, it isn't just those who can afford them who have access to the best views, but people who might need beauty even more, because they live with so much less. In my fantasy, this village is owned and inhabited by the disabled, on their schedule, at their pace, according to their standards of what is successful - not money or results, but friendship, and fellow feeling, and companionship. In my fantasy, it is the rest of us, the normals, who have to be "integrated" into their society, who have to adapt to their pace and their place. I can leave, I can go back to my more pressing and even more interesting life, but I can also return to live with Walker, as Walker lives - slowly, and without much of an agenda beyond merely being himself.

Because in my fantasy lots of people want to visit and live in Walker's society for extended stretches at a time. Composers, writers, artists, students, MBA types doing their doctorates in business administration, researchers, executives on sabbatical - we too can enjoy the privilege of living in Walker's village for a few weeks or months at a time, in pleasant rooms of our own where we're encouraged to pursue our work, our art and our studies. Our only obligation is to integrate ourselves into the disabled world by eating lunch and dinner with them, and, once a week, by giving one of the residents a bath. The rest of the time we are free to think and write and paint and compose and analyze and calculate. But by then the disabled will have done their work, accomplished their goals, and changed the way we see the world. We will have benefited far more that we have benefited them, but they won't mind. Walker will have made his contribution, by simply being there. As I say, a fantasy.