Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review #21: Ascension by Steven Galloway

An excellent earlier novel from the author of the best-selling The Cellist of Sarajevo.

An imaginative mix of fact and fiction, this novel relates the life of Salvo Ursari, a gypsy from Transylvania whose parents were burned to death in their home by non-gypsies when he was nine. Salvo moves in with an aunt in Budapest where he eventually learns the art of walking the high wire from a tough master. He is later reunited with his brother and sister, who also become high-wire artists and, after a run-in with the Gestapo, the family flees to America where they become a famous act in the Fisher-Fielding circus.

The strength of this novel is the author’s ability to sustain tension. In a number of scenes on the high wire, (besides the circus, Salvo walks across the Grand Canyon and between the twin towers of the World Trade Center) the author has a remarkable ability to involve the reader in the action, although some of the descriptions of circus tricks are difficult to picture. The author offers an excellent description of the horrendous 1945 big-top fire in Boise, Idaho in which 112 people died, bringing the age of large tent circuses to an end. The book is also riddled with gypsy tales that have the feel of genuine folk stories straight from the forests of eastern Europe. Even though we meet the many people who have inhabited Salvo’s world, including the extended Fisher-Fielding family in constant struggle over control of the circus, it is his loneliness on the high wire that we feel most keenly.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review #20: Deactivated West 100 by Don McKay

As well as being one of Canada's finest poets, Don McKay carves insightful and beautiful essays out of the natural world around him.

Two-time Governor General’s Award winner for poetry, McKay, in this collection of essays, explores “the relation between place and wilderness”. Intriguingly, McKay investigates the meaning of place by getting lost in the deep backwoods of Vancouver Island. The author is intimately attuned to plant life, animals and birds, the geologic signatures under the landscape, as well as the few fading remnants of human passage through this thick overgrown bush country. McKay’s wandering, however, is always rooted in language, where he dazzles like sudden sunlight on mica, as he pictures himself “a man stepping blindly into line one of The Inferno…” Any long walk is also an opportunity to muse, as McKay does here, on a variety of fascinating subjects: the use of the cleft-triangle in painted caves and Joyce’s Ulysses, the impossibility of finding hermits as a theme in ancient Chinese poetry, and the way waterfalls can “break into speech”. McKay keeps his feet on solid earth and his ear well tuned – he is as comfortable quoting Yogi Berra and The Globe and Mail as Jorge Luis Borges and Xenophanes. With exhilarating imagination and insight, McKay reminds us that “place is where stories happen…where infinity becomes history.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Book Review #19: A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

Not only is Alberto Manguel a fine writer, he is one of the great 'readers' of our time, as this volume attests.

Subtitled ‘A Year of Favourite Books’, this small volume combines ruminations by Manguel on twelve novels, memories of childhood (when he first read many of these books), shards of poetry, events in the daily news that link to the books, visits of friends and neighbours, the turn of the seasons in his garden, as well as numerous apt quotes from a variety of sources. Manguel is a voracious, generous and astute reader and he includes works from across the globe: Don Quixote, Kim, The Pillow Book,Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, novels by H.G. Wells and Goethe. His astonishing literary range is evidenced by the inclusion of works from lesser-known South American writers (Bioy Casares and Machado de Assis), children’s literature (The Wind in the Willows) and detective fiction (The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). His comments on the works are always intelligent, insightful, original and engaging.

Manguel maintains a contemplative tone throughout, as befits a book written, for the most part, in a medieval presbytery, now his home in southern France. In this reflective tone, he states: “I, of course, will disappear …the books will be scattered. … As in the eye of a sculptor chiselling away at a stone, the whole will be all the more beautiful for our absence.” Manguel’s enthusiasms encourage the reader to visit or re-visit many of these literary worlds, but he is especially convincing in his discussions of Cervantes, Kipling and Sherlock Holmes. There is no doubt Manguel loves libraries and books: “I explore my library like someone returning to his native land after an absence of decades.” His gift is the ability to foster that same love in his readers.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review #18: The Vicinity by David O’Meara

Excellent poems from a fine Canadian poet.

The urban world of concrete, structural steel and glass is the primary subject of this fine collection of poems on the city acutely observed. In the wrong hands this could have led to a blurred gray vision of the world but O’Meara’s use of language and images is so striking and original that dusk’s “uneven ledges” turn into “long, sun-burned collarbones”. ‘A Civic Gesture’, the first of two sections, ends with a long poem titled ‘Letter to Auden’, in which O’Meara gives the old poet a report on the state of the world since his death. This structured piece of moral outrage also exhibits a wry, infective humor: “And correct me here if there’s some doubt, / But wasn’t the Great Wall constructed / to keep the tourists out?”

Throughout the collection, there are numerous examples of the poet’s exhilarating, fresh imagery: A brick wall is “stoic toil”; a dark window on a train becomes “a specimen slide of dark fields”; and wind is a civil servant “pushing papers along curb lengths”. In arguably his finest poem, ‘The Basilica at Assisi’, the poet imagines himself as a rough laborer in 1233 who wishes he could “swear and still be pious”. As for St. Francis, he could “talk a storm into a rain barrel”, and the deadline for finishing the basilica is “This time next century”. Although the second section of the book, ‘Walking Around’, exhibits an appropriate meandering quality, the poems are less razor-sharp. Altogether, this is an excellent, finely honed collection, filled with precise, wholly original language.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A short excerpt from Walking Backwards, a travel memoir by Mark Frutkin (Dundurn Books)


Istanbul, ancient Byzantium, fabled Constantinople, Gateway to the Orient. We have arrived at last in the city of multiple names. But why is it snowing?

I stand in line in the vast echoing space of the main train station of Istanbul with the two Michaels: one of Irish descent, the other Lebanese, and like me (at that time), both American citizens. It’s January and, outside, a wet, heavy snow settles on the city. All three of us wear backpacks in which we carry, along with our own clothing, a bolt of new cloth each—fine English wool—that a young, engaging Jordanian we met on the train has asked us to carry through Turkish customs for him.

“You are Americans; I am sure they will not bother to check you,” Ahmed had pointed out with confidence, soon after ingratiating himself with us by pulling out and passing around the train compartment an expensive bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch.

As soon as we had arrived and disembarked in the station, Ahmed had disappeared.
The slow stuttering line in which we stand consists of several thousand travellers, and extends for half-a-kilometre through the station. No sign now of our new Jordanian friend with his preternaturally wrinkled face and his wide generous smile. His gentle charisma dovetailed perfectly with our trusting natures and, innocents that we were, it took little to convince us to carry his three bolts of cloth. Each bolt was about thirty inches long, twelve inches wide and two inches thick and we had stuffed them into our packs without hesitation.

From my place in line, I figure that Ahmed has been swallowed by the crowd, a chaotic mix of poor families, old men and women, young children hanging off their mothers, soldiers, gypsies. We are the only obvious North Americans in the station, surrounded by a sea of Turks, Bulgarians, Yugoslavs, Jordanians, Syrians and other Middle Easterners. Few Western tourists come to Istanbul in January. As I wait I begin to wonder where Ahmed has disappeared to. As an uneasy feeling begins in the pit of my stomach, I try to control my mounting panic.

The line inches forward, approaching half-a-dozen long wooden tables that stretch across the room. Behind these tables stand the customs officials, appearing stern and serious in their too-tight uniforms. As we wait, we notice that the officials are scrupulously examining everything. They empty cheap suitcases and sacks, demanding to see the contents of every parcel and package. We notice that one customs official has uncapped a tube of toothpaste, which he is squeezing, scrutinizing the paste as it oozes out.

“What could they be looking for?” we ask each other. “No one smuggles drugs into Turkey. Jewels? Diamonds? Gold? What?” We give each other uncomprehending, worried looks.

The line lurches forward again in fits and starts and still there is no sign of Ahmed. Now we are swivelling our heads back and forth looking for the Jordanian to come join us at the last minute. Why has he disappeared? I wonder. I’m sure he’ll find us, I think, with an entirely unjustified faith. At the last minute, I’m sure he’ll come running up and go through customs with us. Where the hell is he?
The family of four in front of us is called to the customs table. The three of us wait, clutching our American passports like drowning men holding to bits of grey-green flotsam.

We are next in line. There is no sign of Ahmed.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Review #17: Blue by George Elliott Clarke

A superlative poet whose work rings with energy and joy.

George Elliott Clarke is a unique voice in Canadian poetry – ecstatic, sensual, gospel-inflected, occasionally vituperative, always engaging.

Using the entire history of literature as his playground, he writes with the energy, freedom and profusion of the young Ginsberg or the Kerouac of Mexico City Blues.

More black and blue than beat, the “Nofaskoshan” poet can celebrate rum, brown girls, Ovid, Nabokov and Miles Davis in short order, mixing a word cocktail of gorgeous music: “I crave, suffer for, luscious song among apples –/Blessed orchards where I’d think long of coupling,/Stagger drowsy–but holy–with liquor and berries,/Praising peaches and peerless apples-” (Canto XXXIX)

An early work by Clarke, Whylah Falls, stands as one of the strongest works of poetry ever created in Canada, and would hold its own anywhere in the English-speaking world, with its fabulously rich detail and fully realized story line.

With Blue, he continues in that tradition, voicing lyrics soft or hard, from “orchards dusted with snowing light” to “I crave a sound like poison because genius is greedy”.

Numerous poems here are dedicated to other writers and artists (Nietschze, Colette) and some are written “in the manner of” (Pound, Coleman), but there is nothing derivative in the work of Clarke. Like an ecstatic struck alive by jazz and light, he can sing alone or in chorus.

He can also whisper love lyrics sweet enough to melt the hardest hearts: “To hold her is to hold/perfume – whitest breath/of lilies…” or “I could behead the roses/for snatching their scent/from you as you pass.”

Whether Clarke shouts pentecostal-like from the gut, whether he rages and burns, or runs soft as water, we hear poetry.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review #16: Carolan’s Farewell by Charles Foran

(A delightful novel set in old Ireland.)

Set in 18th century Ireland, this delightful novel tells of the final days of blind Terence Carolan, legendary traveling bard and harpist. Going from manor to village to manor accompanied by Owen Connor, his guide and manservant, Carolan composes and sings for their room and board. Divided into two main sections (‘Blind’ and ‘Freckled’), the book first tells the story of Carolan’s return from Station Island where he underwent a weeklong penitential purging that nearly killed him. He and Owen ride their horses, Geminiani and Gulliver, characters in their own right, into the tiny village of Kesh where the locals will be honoured and stunned by this famous visitor, and where a beautiful child is dying of diphtheria.

The depictions of Irish poverty of the day are palpable but, as befits a historical novel set in Ireland, the dialogue is everything. Conversations take up a good two-thirds of the text and they are a marvel of word play and wit. (“Did I fall asleep?” he asks. “Both fell and slept,” Owen answers.) There is also much of music in this work, both in the language and the story. For Carolan, a melody “ought to sound effortless, or perhaps inevitable, like birdcall at sunrise.” The second half of the novel continues the story from Owen’s point of view, while Carolan lies dying in the manor of his patroness. Owen is loyal to a fault and itching to break free of the constraints of his lower-class position. He is also a biblioklept who cannot help stealing books from manor libraries, an activity that brings a sheriff onto the scene. The denouement of the story, Carolan’s final farewell, is extremely touching and well wrought. A fine work.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review #15: Available Light by Herménégilde Chiasson

(Delightful essays from one of Canada's better known Acadian writer.)

These short intelligent essays, many less than three pages, reveal an author with a sense of playful erudition. Addressing themes that touch on the fading Acadian way of life, art and art history, as well as literature and creativity, Chiasson writes with the pastels and watercolors of a poet.

Who could resist an essay that opens with lines like these (from ‘Pray for Him’): “Paris wrapped us in its silken cocoon and its mystery. Escape, novelty, discovery – in short, adventure – was our only driving force, although we did have a car.” At the same time, Chiasson can write from a deep revelatory sense of melancholy: “The more we live the more we see, and we await the fateful moment when our eyes will be opened forever.” (‘A Photographer at the Louvre’) The collection is filled with thoughtful, beautiful lines that echo long after they have been read.

These are not deep philosophical essays (cf. George Steiner) nor political/social commentary (cf. Mordecai Richler or Salman Rushdie), but more in the mode of an Eduardo Galleano – poetic, concise, insightful. Chiasson visits a number of places, most notably, his childhood in Acadian New Brunswick, Montreal, Paris. He also touches on the lives and work of numerous writers and artists: Rimbaud, Kerouac, Picasso, Giotto, Cendrars, Duchamp and others. His thoughts on such things as memory, photography and children’s crayons are perceptive, constantly entertaining and thoroughly illuminating.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review #14: Grand Centaur Station by Larry Frolick

(An enjoyable travel book, the grand tour, Central Asian-style.)

Subtitled ‘Unruly Living with the New Nomads of Central Asia’, this book is an irreverent tour of Kiev, Moscow, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkestan, Mongolia and Siberia. Frolick is an engaging travel companion, not afraid to be politically incorrect as he guides us through strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes devastated, lands. Never content with playing the mute tourist, he constantly engages with people. In Kiev, he meets a gangster and a gorgeous museum director; in Mongolia, a drunken pack of Aussie tourists. On a train, he meets a Korean businessman, and a Mongolian woman who commutes from Los Angeles to Ulan Bator to manage her father’s slaughterhouse. In Tashkent, along the old Silk Route, he finds a market with a hundred different kinds of cherries. Throughout, he observes the crumbling of the old Soviet edifice and the shaky foundations of globalism, the deep past and the unknown future.

When meeting people and observing cultures, Frolick is excellent company; however, his intellectual conceit regarding nomads is all over the map and, like a road into the bush, appears to go nowhere. The writing itself, however, can be exquisite: “…a vast vernal plain, italicized here and there with great strutting strands of red pine…” or “Dawn, the colour of old honey.” But his language is also adaptable – in the Ukraine and Moscow, the air, and the writing, are heavy, as if still-present Chernobyl isotopes and the Soviet mentality continue to weigh on the mind. All in all, a fine travel book on a region still little known (let alone understood) in the West.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review #13: The Life and Times of Captain N. by Douglas Glover

(Douglas Glover is a writer of uncommon power and should be better known.)

The forest stands for fear, an ancient nightmare come alive. In Douglas Glover’s novel set on the Niagara frontier during the American Revolution, the vast brooding forest itself is a character, a dangerously fertile, darkly chaotic womb that spews forth bodies and heads.

This is the compelling story of Hendrick Nellis, a Tory fighter, and his eccentric son, Oskar, who lives half in dream, half in books. Like all pioneers of their day, they feared that darkness running for thousands of miles in all directions, the Great Mother and provider as well as the source of Indians ripping scalps and cracking skulls.

Glover sees clearly into the disturbing depths of the pioneer mind and the sometimes horrific mind of the native, as well, with its raw primeval grasp of magic.

In one gut-wrenching scene, the sorcerer, Crow, tortures a white soldier as a magic offering to the Iroquois sun god, “Boyd and the sorcerer are having a conversation, a dialogue of pain, a dual prayer. Crow…cuts a strip from Boyd’s forearm, inserts a stick, and pops out the tendons….”

What really sings in this book is the world Glover has envisioned. No noble savages here, no Little House on the Prairie, but a coarse reality steeped in violence, bad smells and rampant disease. Blood is spilled and brains splattered with abandon. This is war on many levels: territorial, political, racial, psychic.

With writing of breathtaking power, relentless and unflinching, Glover places the reader square in the middle of that nightmare world that is our common past.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Book Review #12: Original Minds - in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel

This book includes 16 conversations between CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel and some of the most intelligent, visionary ‘minds’ in today’s world. The interviews each start with a two-three page biography and include novelists (Umberto Eco, Arthur C. Clarke), scientist/authors (Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond) and thinkers (Jane Jacobs, Noam Chomsky). As an interviewer, Wachtel is excellent – thoroughly informed on the lives, thoughts and writing of her interviewees but not overbearing in her knowledge. She lets them speak. And what they have to say is almost always fascinating and engaging: from the profound, troubling questions about the Holocaust raised by critic George Steiner to the astonishing insights of author Jared Diamond (the vertical, hourglass shape of the Western Hemisphere restricted movements of agriculture that passed easily across horizontal Eurasia).

From filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, you will learn that he alternates the making of epic and small films and that he’s seeing his analyst again. Even in cases where the reader may not have a powerful interest in the subject, these voices are often so engaged, they draw the listener/reader in. Amartya Sen, Nobel-winning Indian economist on famine (seldom caused by the unavailability of food) and the absolutely fascinating voice of primatologist Jane Goodall are highlights. And if the interview with critic Harold Bloom doesn’t send you back to reread Shakespeare, nothing will. A feast for the mind. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review #11: The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe

(A wonderful Canadian novel with precisely-drawn characters set in the old West.)

Set in the late 19th century, this is the story of three well-off English brothers: Simon and Charles Gaunt are twins, Addington is their elder sibling, a former soldier and arrogant scoundrel. At the behest of their dictatorial father, Charles and Addington travel to the prairies of the U.S. and Canada in search of the sensitive Simon who has disappeared. Much of the novel concerns their journeys through Indian country – bottles of port and claret rattling in their wagons – with a cast of intricately drawn, fully realized characters.

The small troupe is led through the whiskey-colored light by Jerry Potts, a half-breed, with one foot firmly in each world. The heart of the plot involves the love that Charles, a painter, feels for Lucy Stoveall, a simple but lovely country woman who accompanies them, secretly intent on revenging her sister’s murder. However, the most intriguing character in this marvelous collection of all-too-human personalities is Custis Straw, a bible-reading, heavy drinking Civil War veteran who also loves Lucy but is a man of tremendous dignity well hidden behind a bumbling façade.

The author’s rich language reveals a genuine feel for the prairies and its rough settlements: “a spectacular mulberry dawn”, “a boom town draws rogues like a jam jar draws wasps”, “miles of wet plain patched with apple green, new penny copper, glints of silver”.

Though this is a “western” in the traditional sense, Vanderhaeghe never sinks into parody, but has utilized the western motif to reveal a number of profound universal truths about personal honor and human failings and strengths. His humane depiction of character goes deeper than any novel I have read in years

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review #10: The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant

(In my opinion, Mavis Gallant is the best Canadian short story writer, and one of the best in English. Personally, I think she's even better than Alice Munro. Perhaps it's the settings: I just enjoy reading about Paris and France more than small-town Ontario. Go figure.)

For almost fifty years, Mavis Gallant, a Canadian but a longtime resident of Paris, has been writing some of the most intelligent, captivating short stories in the English language. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, she has won numerous prizes in Canada and elsewhere.

The fifty-two stories in this collection cover the period from the fifties to the nineties and range in length from three to fifty-seven pages. They show Gallant at her best. She writes with a precision that is astonishing. Because she writes stories that are almost geological in their density, the longer ones feel to the reader like novels. In “Speck’s Idea”, she packs four distinct actions into one sentence: “A minute after having pushed the gate and tugged the rusted wire bellpull, he found himself alone in a bleak sitting room, from which his hostess had been called by a whistling kettle.”

Gallant’s venue is Europe, that bent old man of profound culture and deep, troubling memories, that half-continent “with its pettiness and faded cruelty, its crabbed richness and sentimentality”. The majority of her stories are set in France (especially Paris), though they can range from the shores of the Baltic to the beaches of the Mediterranean.

She molds unforgettable characters of every age, and pictures them with marvelous insight. A reader suspects that Gallant truly loves her characters and her acutely-observed city of Paris. Mavis Gallant tells stories that are completely natural in their structure, refreshing in their light-handed wit and ennobling in their humanity.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Book Review #9: Another Gravity by Don McKay

(A review of a poetry collection by Canada's most accomplished poet -- and, I believe, one of the best writing in the English language today.)

Another Gravity won the Governor General’s award for poetry, Canada’s premier book prize. McKay also won in 1991 with his collection, Night Field.

McKay’s nine books of poetry are all marked by a rigorous intelligence, a profound feel for language and a lightness of touch. McKay has the uncanny ability to bring together the complex and meaningful with the mundane. In “Sometimes a Voice (1)”, a few friends shingle a boathouse roof, drinking beer and “discussing gravity”. But the simple scene turns into the contemplation of a friend’s disappearance, his hammer stuck inside his boots.

There is a constant play in this book between gravity and its opposite, whether expressed as air, sky, wind, wings or feathers. But the primary focus of attention here is the moon, which appears in numerous poems, not as a sentimental reflection of romantic notions, but as another form of gravity, a guide in the art of reflection.

McKay’s sheer delight in language is infectious. The poems are sprinkled with startling, original turns of phrase: the moon is a “black belly-button swirl”; a dream of eiders diving into the Arctic Ocean leaves his “whole mind applauding”; a luna moth is “a scrap of wedding dress”.

In “Angle of Attack”, McKay states his approach clearly: “we needed duct tape, a philosophy of feathers / and a plan: what to / fall for, gracefully, / and without too much / deliberation, how to mix / the mysticism with the ash and live / next door to nothing, / and with art.”

There is no doubt McKay belongs in the top rank of poets writing in English today.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book Review #8: Towards a Just Society edited by Thomas S. Axworthy and Pierre Elliott Trudeau

In this political season, a review of a classic Canadian political work by our greatest Prime Minister

For anyone interested in Canada’s political history in the second half of the twentieth century, this collection of essays is essential reading. Subtitled “The Trudeau Years”, the book covers the period from 1968 to 1984 when Trudeau was Prime Minister, except for a short hiatus when Progressive Conservative Joe Clark was elected.

The essays present the Liberal party view of national and international relations during the period with a special focus on the persistent and vexatious Quebec question. A number of highly placed Liberals are included: Marc Lalonde writes on energy policy, John Roberts on the environment, and Jean Chretien on Canada’s endless constitutional dance marathon. The lead essay, titled “The Tempest Bursting: Canada in 1992” by Axworthy and Trudeau, reveals profound intelligence at work and is excellent at placing Trudeau within the historical liberal context beginning with the Greeks.

Canadian politics is apocalyptic – every major question seems to threaten the actual existence of the country: Quebec nationalism, the growth of provincial power, Western disaffection, U.S. relations. Also, Canada’s locus of power is centralized in the Ontario-Quebec axis, unlike the U.S. where power tends to reside on the two coasts.

Trudeau understood these realities – for him, a ‘just’ society is one that offers “equality of opportunity” to every citizen and all his economic and language policies grew out of this view, including his arguments against Quebec nationalism which are absolutely irrefutable and stand the test of time.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review #7: Three Views of Crystal Water by Katherine Govier

(Since Japan has been much in the news lately, here is an excellent novel set in Japan before the war.)

Vera, 13, lives in Vancouver with her grandfather, James Lowinger, a pearl merchant. Loneliness has driven Vera’s mother to jump off a bridge while her shiftless father travels the world chasing his next moneymaking scheme. Set in the 1930s, this novel is the story of a girl who has (as Ikkanshi, the sword polisher, will later tell her) “beginner’s mind”, both ignorant and clear of preconceptions. When her grandfather too dies, Vera ends up on a remote island in Japan with her Japanese ‘stepmother’ where slowly she is accepted into the all-female community of pearl divers, grows up, falls in love and nearly becomes ensnared in the politics of an increasingly militaristic Japan.

Filled with intriguing lore on pearls, their history and magic, and traditional Japanese swords, this coming-of-age story is told with a subtle and elegant simplicity, the writing exquisite and clear as sparkling water. When Vera helps Ikkanshi test an ancient sword by holding it in a stream to see if it can cut floating leaves, Govier explains, “they focused only on the task itself, and not its meaning,” thereby imparting a feel for an archetypal Japanese artistic view without having to state it baldly. Later, in a final testament, Vera’s grandfather tells the wondrous story of how he traded everything for a single pearl of incomparable size and possibility only to see it all disappear in an attempt to attain perfection. This fine novel creates a world of depth and feeling, one that brings together the mountains and seas of Japan, the sea’s nacreous jewels and the intriguing life of a young, spirited woman.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Review #6: When Alice Lay Down With Peter by Margaret Sweatman

(An entertaining novel of magic realism from the Canadian prairies.)

This novel is an entirely original history of the Canadian prairies. From the early years of buffalo hunting and rebellion through to 1970, Blondie, the wry narrator, recounts the story of four feisty women: her mother, Alice; her stunningly beautiful daughter, Helen; her artist granddaughter, Dianna; and herself. In her 109 years, Blondie has seen it all, from the hanging of Louis Riel to the loss of Helen in the Spanish Civil War.

Assorted husbands, a banker, a monk, a communist and several ghosts also make an appearance, lending this marvelous literary confection set in the Red River valley of southern Manitoba a magical eccentric atmosphere. Recurring floods and lightning bolts at the moment of conception add to the rollicking mix.

Sweatman writes with rare skill and humor: “Eli looked at the corn as a Zen Buddhist would examine a screwdriver.” She delights in the way words flood their banks and find new channels through the flatlands: “My mother’s laughter, those nine months, came from the place where happiness and a nearly intolerable ache live together” and “the air was like the underside of a mushroom, milky pale lavender and musk”.

The beauty of the language never wavers. It is consistently inventive and, with the strong story, lifts this novel to another level. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review #5: Village of the Small Houses by Ian Ferguson

(If you missed this one when it first came out, it's worth going back for. A wildly entertaining memoir of the far North.)

At times touching, at times humorous, this engaging memoir is set primarily in Fort Vermilion, a town of scattered native and white settlements in extreme northern Alberta. The author moved there with his family in 1959 after a rental scam his father was pulling in Edmonton was discovered. The North was a country of rough roads, endless winters (snow in July), ramshackle shacks and marvelously eccentric characters. These included the author’s likable scheming father (who became a teacher in the local school); his father’s best friend, Bud Peyen, a huge ferryman native; the author’s best friend, Lloyd Loonskin; and the unforgettable Sixtoes Mitchell, a trapper and the scariest-looking man in the world: “He looked as if his face had caught on fire and they’d put it out with an axe.”

Ferguson delivers a clear picture of what life was like for a young man growing up far from TV and flush toilets, surrounded by thousands of square miles of inhospitable bush country. Against this background, the people tend to stand out and the author’s recollections bring them fully to life. Highlights include the family’s escape from Edmonton in a 1953 green-and-white Mercury Zephyr; the time Lloyd Loonskin got himself lost in the woods and was found by Sixtoes; and a bear attack in which the author was saved by the family dog. This memoir comes with the smell of wood smoke, yet is able to avoid the sentimental and romantic notions of a life of poverty in the north.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review #4: This Side Jordan by Margaret Laurence

(A somewhat forgotten classic by one of Canada's greatest writers.)

First published in 1960, This Side Jordan is the first novel by Margaret Laurence, best known for her modern classics, The Stone Angel and The Diviners. Set in 1950s West Africa, the novel throbs with a palpable sense of urgency. You can almost hear the highlife music playing in the background.

Employing a cast of vividly drawn characters, Laurence explores the difficult psychological and social borderline between blacks and whites at the end of the colonial era in the city of Accra and its environs.

The main protagonist, the spectacled Nathaniel Amegbe, is torn between two worlds: his deeply felt Ashanti past and his present occupation as a schoolteacher. As readers, we are privy to Amegbe’s attempts to think his way to a kind of salvation. Amegbe, in all his contradictions, embodies Africa as it tries to enter the modern world.

Laurence paints characters that are living presences. Johnie Kestoe, for example, a racist company man, “was thin in a sharp, almost metallic way, like a man made of netted wire upon which flesh has been inadequately spread.” The stories of Amegbe, Kestoe, their wives, families, business colleagues and friends, are the struggles of two distinct worlds trying to mesh.

The novel works brilliantly at numerous levels: the personal, the historic, the social. As an exploration of Ghana in that period, it is strikingly believable. It also sparkles with Laurence’s fine writing: “Oppressive and stifling, the air seemed to be hung with hot unshed rain, and the leaves of the palm trees crackled like breeze-fanned flames.”

This Side Jordan is an examination of greed, racism, pride, struggle and self-betrayal. In the end, however, it is a tale of the human condition and the saving grace of redemption.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review #3: Charlie Johnson in the Flames by Michael Ignatieff

(Yes, Michael Ignatieff had a previous life as a novelist, an excellent one actually.)
This short, intense novel tells the story of Charlie Johnson, a war correspondent working in the Balkans during the recent war there. Charlie, hardened to the realities of war but not yet insensitive to the human beings experiencing daily trauma, is accompanied by his cameraman and best friend, Jacek, a melancholy, reliable Pole. The story focuses on a single event and its aftermath. While hiding in a contested village, Charlie sees a peasant woman set alight and tries to put her out with his bare hands. After his recovery, he grows obsessed with his memory of the woman, who was rescued by helicopter but eventually died. He returns to the Balkan danger zones to hunt down the high-ranked soldier who murdered her, not to kill him but to simply ask “Why?”

This is an extremely accomplished novel in which the author places the reader in burned out villages and tense, ugly towns with uncanny clarity. An old rundown hotel has “Third Reich corridors, curving, carpeted, high-ceilinged and dim”. The Balkans at war are a haunting and dangerous place so Charlie’s return is difficult to understand, even for him, but entirely believable. As Jacek says, “We suffer from too much experience”, and Charlie, whose life feels empty and undirected, hungers for answers. All the characters, including the locals, Charlie’s burdened wife, and Etta, his lover from the home office in London, leap off the page into reality. This is a highly filmic work, disturbing, engaged, utterly convincing.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review #2: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is a consummate lover of books. I suspect that reading, for him, is somewhat akin to breathing, that intimate, that essential.

An award-winning editor and writer, Manguel has published numerous works including
The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, The Gates of Paradise, and News From a Foreign Country Came.

A History of Reading, published in 1996, is a tour de force, an elegant book, handsomely illustrated, thoroughly researched. As an anecdotal and highly personal history, the work celebrates the joys, delights and endless quirky details of reading, writing and books.

Manguel points out that a book, unlike life, can be reread and relived. Reading can also be a private or a public act. In a chapter titled “Being Read To”, he explores the role of the lector in nineteenth century Cuba, when tobacco workers paid one of their number to read aloud political tracts, histories, novels and poetry while they rolled cigars.

From the mysteries of cuneiform to the visual language of an Absolut vodka ad, Manguel ranges from our earliest written languages up to the present age of information.

He sneaks behind private walls to give us a view of medieval Japanese women reading in their chambers and takes us back to the bookstores, stationery shops and literary cafes of his youth in Buenos Aires. He introduces us to the greatest book thieves of all time and reminds us that Don Quixote went mad from reading too many novels of chivalry.

A History of Reading is, quite simply, a bible for bibliophiles. As Miss Prothero said to the firemen standing among the cinders of her burnt house in Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales: “Would you like anything to read?”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Short Book Reviews

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I have decided to remove all but nine of the short essays from this blog, for the simple reason that the entire collection of these essays will be published in Spring 2012 by Fourfront Press (Toronto). So, look for Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously at that time and get the entire package!

At this point, I am going to begin posting short reviews of various novels, non-fiction and poetry collections that asked me to write. They were all published on the amazon site between 2001 and 2006. Over that period, I wrote over 150 very short reviews. My editor at amazon gave me complete editorial freedom (almost), never changing a single line except the removal of the last line in this review of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

Review #1: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

In this science fiction novel that is more Swift than Heinlein, more cautionary tale than ‘fictional science’ (no flying cars here), Atwood depicts a world that turns from the merely horrible to the horrific, from a Fool’s Paradise to a bio-wasteland. Snowman, who sleeps in a tree and just might be the only human left on our devastated planet, recalls how the world fell apart. He is not entirely alone, however, as he considers himself the shepherd of a group of human-like experiments called the Children of Crake.

While the first 70 pages or so are a rather ponderous set-up of what has become a cliché of the human endgame, the novel takes life when Snowman (known as Jimmy then) recalls meeting Crake, his best friend. A dark genius, Crake is the book’s most intriguing character. Crake and Jimmy live with all the other smart, rich people in the Compounds, protected facilities owned by bio-tech companies. Ordinary folks live in the chaotic pleeblands. This is the near future, our time still within living memory.

Meanwhile, beautiful Oryx, raised as a child prostitute in Southeast Asia, finds her way to the West and meets Crake and Jimmy, setting up the obligatory love triangle. Eventually Crake’s experiments in biotechnology run amok and cause the world’s shockingly quick demise (uncanny echoes of SARS, ebola and mad cow disease). Snowman is left to try to pick up the pieces.

Once the bleak narrative gets moving, it clips along at a good pace, with a healthy dose of wry humor. Nevertheless, there are enough speed bumps (some clunky dialogue; heavy-handed symbols such as the broken watch Snowman wears; and the silliness of naming the Children of Crake after famous characters such as Abraham Lincoln) that this cannot be considered among Atwood’s best.

If the sky really is falling and you’re heading for that desert island, this isn’t the one book to take.