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.