Tuesday, December 11, 2012

TERRY’S BIG WATCH: A Child’s Horror Story

My friend Terry has a BIG WATCH. It stares at me from his wrist and scares the livin’ bejeesus outta me. Even though Terry is a big guy, it even looks big on his big wrist, it’s that BIG. TERRY’S BIG WATCH shows up in my dreams. Well, not my dreams, my nightmares! Because any dream that includes TERRY’S BIG WATCH is frightening as hell. TERRY’S BIG WATCH has a big bell inside that goes off every night at midnight and every day at noon. Stupid watch can’t even tell the difference between twelve midnight and twelve noon. But it is BIG, I must admit that. *** TERRY’S BIG WATCH is as big as the moon, the full moon that is, not that skinny punk moon that lies back in its Lazyboy chair and smokes Gauloises. For you kids, those are French cigarettes. I once had a dream that TERRY’S BIG WATCH learned to smoke French cigarettes. It would sneak into the bathroom when Terry was asleep and light up. Then it started sending signals to the moon out the window. TERRY’S BIG WATCH has two hands so it sent its signals in semaphore. At 12:50 a.m., it sent U. At 2:45, it sent R. At 5:45, it sent B, and at 6:20, TERRY’S BIG WATCH sent G. TERRY’S BIG WATCH sat on the toilet in the bathroom and smirked. U R B G. Ha, ha. U Are BiG. Everybody thinks I’m big but that moon is really big. Then TERRY’S BIG WATCH went back to bed, stinking of smoke. *** The next night, when TERRY’S BIG WATCH sat on the toilet smoking his Gauloises, he looked up at the moon. The moon must have five hands, TERRY’S BIG WATCH thought, because it’s signaling a PENTAGRAM. A Pentagram!? That’s the sign of Satan! TERRY’S BIG WATCH hurried back to bed immediately and never smoked Gauloises again. So now TERRY’S BIG WATCH knows what it’s like to be frightened. But it’s SO BIG, it still scares me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Review #36: A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart

A very fine novel by one of Canada's master fiction writers. In the typical Urquhart mold, this is a novel about the past, the land and art, subjects found in many of her previous novels. A young artist, Jerome, is alone on Timber Island to take photos of temporary art creations, or “absences”, he has dug in the snow. While there, he finds the body of Andrew Woodman, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, frozen in the ice of the river. Later, an older woman, Sylvia, searches out Jerome and his girlfriend in Toronto. Slightly autistic, she has fled her doctor husband in rural eastern Ontario because she wants to talk to Jerome about Andrew, her lover. The three sections of the book are intelligently constructed, with the two contemporary sections framing the central section, which recounts the history of the Woodman family, 19th century shipbuilders and hotelkeepers on Lake Ontario. Urquhart’s writing is extremely resonant and always echoes her larger themes: “How wonderful the snow was; every change of direction, each whim, even the compulsion of hunger was marked on its surface, like memory, for a brief season.” Her writing is also highly cerebral – little happens in this novel but there is an enormous quantity of thoughtful reflection. The depiction of the Woodman past, with its near-mythical characters and its grand hotel invaded by sand, is so deeply realized that the present feels amorphous in contrast, its characters infused with the ambiguity of modernism. In the end, however, Urquhart shows how this makes perfect sense for, with profound subtlety, she raises a startling question: In the face of shocking change—in landscapes, in memories that fade to nothing, even in the complete dissolution of the human personality in Alzheimer’s—what can still be called reality? Urquhart is a subtle master at work.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Book Review #35 : Airstream Land Yacht by Ken Babstock

A fine Canadian poet with a great ear. The Airstream Land Yacht is a brand of American motorhome as well as Ken Babstock’s third collection of poetry, shortlisted for the 2006 Governor General's Award. In this vehicle, Meaning and Sense take a back seat while Sound drives. Babstock doesn’t so much mean as sing, packing each poem with a flurry of sonorous details. At times, his images can be utterly exact and startling (“clutching tongs that pincer-gripped a heat-split wiener”), or surreal and humorous, as in this reference to autumn: “…the valley’s trees pulled their embarrassing sports coats on.” The book is divided into four parts: Air, Stream, Land and Yacht. Too often the author whips up an impenetrably dense froth of language; at other times, when he is not quite so intent on revealing the blur inside his head, he can conjure a poem that whispers down and settles inside the reader like a fine, even snowfall, as in ‘The Tall Ships Docked in Kiel Harbour’. There’s little doubt that no one else in Canadian poetry today (except perhaps, George Elliot Clark) has quite the Babstock ear, as he sets the reader whirling with his complex rhythms and rhymes that are never simple but always refreshingly devious: “we finished early to a round / of applause from a bank of thundercloud.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review #34: Lambsquarters by Barbara McLean

An enjoyable visit to the country and the quiet ways and objects of country life. Subtitled 'Scenes from a Handmade Life', this back-to-the-land memoir is constructed of numerous short sections, many of which are meditations on familiar country things: a leaning barn, a crowbar, a snapping turtle, a towering beech tree, a corduroy road. But the book comes fully alive when McLean recounts her many experiences raising sheep. When the author and her physician husband, Thomas, first came to Grey County in southern Ontario, they gave their farm the singularly appropriate name, Lambsquarters, the name of a local edible weed. The tales of delivering, raising, shearing and caring for sheep and lambs have the scent of authenticity – the reader can smell wet wool and lanolin in the air of the old barn. McLean is good with a simile: a lamb born dead is “neatly contained in a pellucid envelope, as beautifully wrapped as a Japanese present”; half-grown chicks are watched by barn cats “following their moves like tennis fans.” The broader considerations of life in the country are all present (weather, wildlife, social gatherings and so on) but this book excels in its homey, almost invisible details, for example, the way moisture quickly evaporates from a freshly laid egg. At times the book feels somewhat overwritten with too many references to the gods and goddesses of classical myth, and McLean fails to make the few characters outside her own family come alive. Nevertheless, for its quiet reflections on country ways, this is a most enjoyable read.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Review #33: How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

I enjoy Jonathan Franzen's essays, which can address any number of wide-ranging subjects, but I can't bear his novels. I had to stop reading The Corrections after about 100+ pages. He seems to despise his own characters. Many of these fourteen essays, by the author of the 2001 novel, The Corrections, first appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s and elsewhere. Franzen is smart and brash, the kind of person you want as your social critic but not as a brother-in-law. A long, much-discussed essay on the American novel, titled ‘Why Bother?’, is included, as well as essays on privacy obsession, the U.S. post office, New York City, big tobacco and new prisons. At his best, as in ‘My Father’s Brain’, on his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, (a piece reminiscent of the masterly John McPhee), Franzen can make the ordinary world utterly riveting. At times, however, it can be difficult to discern where Franzen stands on any particular subject as he often seems to take both sides of an argument. Valid attempts to reflect ambiguity sometimes lead to obfuscation, especially in his essays on privacy and tobacco, although his belief that small town America of years gone by offered the individual little privacy certainly rings true. Franzen can write with panache, as in this comment after he watched, without headphones, a TV show during a flight: “(It) became an expose of the hydraulics of insincere smiles.” A few of the shorter pieces here appear to be filler. But Franzen shines brightest when he gets edgy and a little angry, as in ‘The Reader in Exile’: “Instead of Manassas battlefield, a historical theme park. Instead of organizing narratives, a map of the world as complex as the world itself. Instead of a soul, membership in a crowd. Instead of wisdom, data.”

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review #32: House Inside the Waves by Richard Taylor

A fine memoir that gives a fascinating look into life down under with lots of sun and surf, big waves and big sharks.

A year living on the surfer’s paradise coast of Australia inspired this memoir in praise of all things romantic: family, writers addicted to adventure, and above all, the ten-story wave. Taylor, a long-distance swimmer and long-time surfer, offers us a collage of memories from the near and distant past. With his two daughters and his wife, who was on a teacher exchange from snowy Ottawa, the family dives with commendable passion into their new life in a land where summer never ends.

As well as offering his love of the ocean (“Bugga the shaks,” an Aussie friend tells him), Taylor muses on his role as a dedicated househusband. He revisits the lives of numerous writers who have left home to find the world: Gauguin, Byron, Bruce Chatwin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry Miller, Kerouac and others. He also introduces us to ill-fated friends and family, exhibiting a sense of nostalgia for the sixties that is so unabashed and good-hearted that it’s refreshing. We also meet the local Australians and the expats peopling the gorgeous east coast, many an eccentric among them. The writing is energetic and fluid – it rolls along like the swells and breakers of Australia’s Byron Bay, at times capturing unforgettable scenes, such as the image of a sea eagle diving into the waves and coming out “gripping the fish in its talons, the fish still swimming fifty yards in the sky.” Altogether as delightful and refreshing as a dip in the ocean, whether you own a surfboard or not.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review #31: Director’s Cut by David Solway

Another entry in the ever-expanding literature of complaint.

This critique of contemporary poetry is another installment in a growing subgenre of Canadian publishing: the literature of complaint. Other books in this realm have come recently from John Metcalf and others. The persistent theme, voiced again here, is that Canadian writing (poetry, in this instance) is not what it could be (when was it ever?) and the wrong people are getting all the recognition. Solway’s screed is delivered in a state of high dudgeon – complete with the overuse of italics for emphasis. Solway, a Montreal poet, obviously has a tremendous background in classical literature, reads voraciously and displays a superabundant vocabulary. The energy of his persistent choler can actually be engaging, at times, in the ‘highway accident’ sense of wanting to see who will be run over next. His clarion call for a return to technical form in poetry (rhyme and meter, essentially) means a host of poets (and novelists) belong on the dung heap: Al Purdy, John Ashbery, Anne Michaels, Lorna Crozier, Don McKay, Yann Martel, George Elliott Clarke, etc. Atwood, Ondaatje and Anne Carson are “a drone, an entrepeneur and a cipher respectively.”

He reserves his highest praise for a small number of past and present poets, almost all from Montreal: Louis Dudek, Milton Acorn, Irving Layton, Peter Van Toorn, Eric Ormsby, etc. Typical of any harangue, Solway mistakes his mere opinions for truths. While he has a few interesting points to discuss, the book is more diatribe than dialogue. In the end, this special plea for more recognition for the poets of Solway’s coterie is an instance of the squeaky wheel just wanting to get greased.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Three (more) Short Essays from Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (now available at your local or online bookstore)


A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the worth of a word is limited only by the imagination. Take the word ‘chair’ for instance.

When I say ‘chair’ you might imagine a fine cherry wood seat in an elegant dining room, the dirty white plastic chairs in the back yard, a king’s throne, a slab of stone. The possibilities are legion. You might think of the chair you found your aunt slumped in the night she died, patterned with faded roses. You might think of a chair on the Titanic, a chair at the United Nations, an electric chair, your child’s first wooden seat. When you hear the word ‘chair’, you might think of the same word in Italian, French, Serbian, Urdu, Mandarin. You might think of the history of chairs, the construction of chairs, chairs as art, as objects to throw, to prop against a door, to stand on when changing a light bulb or reaching into a high cupboard for dusty muffin tins. The picture of a chair is certainly more restricted than the word ‘chair’, which, in its generic form, leaves almost everything open to the imagination.


Horse moves, slightest of pauses, wagon moves. There is a gap between outbreath and inbreath, between the whippoorwill drawing in its breath and the start of the song; a gap when the pianist has already begun the concerto but no music has yet reached our ears; the gap between seeing lightning in the sky and the word ‘lightning’ appearing in the mind.

That moment of groundless indecision when you don’t know if it’s a star or a shooting star.


It’s intriguing that poetry, that most evanescent of arts, lasts the longest of all cultural artifacts, while architecture, which one would expect to persist as long as the stones of the hills, tends to disappear relatively quickly from the face of the earth.

Thousands of poems of ancient China still exist, can be read today and, what is more astonishing, they can be understood. The poems that deal with the unchanging yet constantly changing world of nature are still extremely accessible, as opposed to those that reference the political world of their time. The four seasons still cycle around today as they did then, maples sprout leaves in the spring, the snow continues to fall each winter and catch in the boughs of the pines, and the mountains mentioned in ancient Chinese poems, while slightly more worn, are still recognizable.

Little remains today, however, of the architecture of ancient China (or any other ancient culture, for that matter, with the exception of enigmatic Egypt). What does remain are those edifices that have been brought low, literally: burial mounds and underground chambers.

Entire cities with their impregnable palaces have disappeared into dust and mist while a simple poem about the moon continues to shine.

Book Review #30: Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe

A classic collection of Canadian short stories by one of Canada's best writers.

First published in 1982, Man Descending, a collection of twelve finely crafted short stories set mostly on the Canadian prairies, won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Vanderhaeghe won the award again in 1996 for his novel, The Englishman’s Boy.

Showing astonishing range, Vanderhaeghe is equally adept at taking on the voice of an eleven-year-old boy stuck on a dusty farm or an unemployed husband whose marriage, like his scotch, is on the rocks (the ‘descending man’ of the title). His characters – man, woman or child – are wholly believable and achingly human. There are no superheroes here – just real human beings with all their foibles and failings, their charms and weaknesses.

He is particularly skilled at describing his creations: the grandmother with a “vinegary voice”; the father who was a “desolate, lanky, drooping weed of a man”; the child who is “loose-jointed” and “water-boned” with boredom; the husband with the “I’m-a-harmless-idiot-don’t-hit-me smile”.

In “Going to Russia”, a doctor interviews a lunatic who is telling the story. As in the other stories, the dialogue flows with the patterns and ripples of genuine speech caught and caged alive and still breathing. With wonderful twists and resonance, the two characters, in discussing a series of letters are actually tracing the ways in which Art imitates Life (and vice versa).

These are rich, satisfying stories with a touch of wry humour. Despite their layers of meaning and unspoken depth that can bear frequent rereadings, they travel lightly. They are like the prairies, in fact: allowing a clear view all the way to the horizon but revealing intriguing detail on closer inspection.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Book Review #29: After Battersea Park by Jonathan Bennett

An extremely funny, well-wrought and highly readable first novel from a Canadian author originally from 'down under'.

Jonathan Bennett’s first novel covers a lot of ground in fewer than two hundred pages. While most of the action takes place in Sydney, Australia, and Toronto, this whirlwind tour of long-separated twins also lands in Hawaii, London, Scotland, Madrid and Mallorca.

Curt, an Australian jazz musician, and William, a Canadian visual artist, were four-year-old twins driven in different directions when their drug-addict father separated from their mother. She soon found she could not feed the children and had to give them up. At age twenty-seven, they learn of each other’s existence and begin a journey that draws them together from different ends of the world.

Bennett has a deft, suggestive touch: “Curt’s aunt, Jilly, found her slumped in her chair. Not late for tennis but dead.” He also has a flair for writing subtle erotic scenes, as in this picnic enjoyed by William and his much older lover: “Spring slid into summer that quiet afternoon, in full view of the city.”

The high points of After Battersea Park are the well-wrought scenes that sparkle with wry humor and wit. He has the ability to place the reader right on the spot: with a crowd of Mallorcans trying to extract a precious cigarette lighter from a storm-water drain (Curt ends by lighting a cigarette and draws a fine round of applause); or hiding in a bedroom closet with William while a couple whose house he has secretly entered make love not ten feet away.

A neatly constructed plot, engaging three-dimensional characters and a touch of devil-may-care impudence make this novel a delight to read.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book Review #28: A Fool and Forty Acres by Geoff Heinricks

Thinking of starting your own vineyard? Read this engaging account first, by a former journalist who took the plunge.

Subtitled “Conjuring a Vineyard Three Thousand Miles from Burgundy”, this is a delightful account of the author’s experiences growing wine grapes in Prince Edward County of Ontario. The county offers a limestone-based soil typical of certain areas of France, ideal for growing the Pinot Noir grape, which is used to make red wine. Also, the presence of Lake Ontario nearby ensures less severe winters. Heinricks, a Toronto journalist, decided to move to Prince Edward County with his family after realizing vineyard land in the Niagara region had grown too expensive. The author is a bit of a fanatic (the good sort), willing to throw his entire being into his pet project, for example, using a pick and shovel to dig holes in the shallow limestone soil and grafting thousands of rootstock himself for planting.

Heinricks writes well and gives the reader a strong taste of his sense of excitement, including a fair bit of history on the area. He starts each chapter with a quote from local poet Al Purdy (and includes several visits with Purdy). Essentially, however, this is a tale of one’s man’s battle against the elements for love of the grape. It’s all about work and weather: “…a brief span of three or more days can combine the weather of all four seasons.” The obstacles to success are legion: insects, diseases such as phylloxera, pests including voles and robins, and the wind-borne insecticide of his neighbors drifting into his vineyard. But in the end, the reader gets the feeling Heinricks will succeed and has thoroughly enjoyed the struggle.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review #27: Civil Elegies and Other Poems by Dennis Lee

A classic collection of poetry by one of Canada's finest poets.

Dennis Lee, one of Canada’s most widely acclaimed poets, received the Governor General’s Award for Civil Elegies in 1972. Lee is perhaps best known for his zany poetry for children, although his adult work exhibits the craft and intelligence of a top-flight poet.

The collection is divided into two parts: ‘Coming Back’, sixteen poems that touch on relationships and language; and ‘Civil Elegies’, a tightly knit series of nine longer poems that explore the meaning of Canada.

For Lee, poetry is about paying attention to the world around him: “Outside, the rasp of a snow-shovel / grates in the dark. / Lovely / sound, I hang onto it.”

But every moment brings the possibility of profound questions in the midst of ordinary life: “Forty-five years, and / still the point eludes him whenever he stops to think.”

In the second half of the book, he turns outward to society, discovering he is, among other things, a citizen. He seems to be writing under the pressure of a moral imperative, internally driven to penetrate what Canada was, is and could be. Humanity is represented by the downtown crowds he observes in the vast square in front of Toronto’s city hall.

The ‘Civil Elegies’ poems are also a struggle with emptiness and meaning, as much about the human condition as the Canadian condition. In their raw questioning, in their naked revelations of a soul trying impossibly to fix its place in the world, the poems offer both great solace and great pain.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review #26: Bedlam by Greg Hollingshead

A fine Canadian historical novel by a fine Canadian novelist about a mad Englishman in the Napoleonic Era.

James Matthews, husband of Margaret, has just returned to England in 1797 after spending three years in a French jail. He is almost immediately sent to Bedlam, the sprawling hospital for the mad in London, apparently for reasons both medical and political. Matthews, who worked as a tea broker, was convinced he could help stave off war between the French and English because of his contacts with French revolutionaries and their British sympathizers. But, Matthews is also quite demented and paranoid and it is the ambiguities of his story that make this a compelling novel.

The story takes place between 1797 and 1818, and includes the first-person voices of Margaret, who ends up moving to Jamaica; John Haslam, an apothecary and medical doctor at Bedlam; and Matthews himself. Both his loving wife and Haslam try to determine why James remains in Bedlam for years although he appears essentially harmless. Through the eyes of these two characters, the novel also becomes a study in loyalty, ambition and conscience. The author’s re-creation of early nineteenth century London, especially the dreary hospital itself, is marvelous and the language is entirely appropriate to the period: “…it was time to rise dizzy and bilious and head out into another day in the place Matthews in his witting way called simply Old Corruption.” The dialogue is particularly well written and the character of James Matthews exhibits all the turmoil and eccentricities one would expect of a brilliant British madman.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review #25: Flames Across the Border, 1813-1814, by Pierre Berton

This year is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. This nonfiction book by Pierre Berton gives an engaging, sometimes thrilling, account of another in a long series of useless, meaningless conflicts.

An engrossing popular history that reads like a fast-paced novel, this is Berton’s second book on the War of 1812. The first, The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813, covered the first part of this war that accomplished little for either side but re-established the line between a fledgling American nation and the British colony to its north.

Rather than pile fact upon dull fact, Berton captures the reader’s interest by telling the story from the point of view of its players – dozens of soldiers, commanders, politicians and civilians who took part in the planning, battles and diplomacy of the war are heard from in their own words.

Berton’s descriptions of characters are excellent and his ability to place the reader in the midst of battle is incomparable – his account of the naval battle of Lake Erie is particularly engaging and extraordinarily gruesome. Throughout, the book is rich with detail – a gentleman soldier sits down to a meal: “a tough steak of half-cooked beef, a piece of dry bread, a mug of tea made from sassafras root, sweetened with sap from the sugar maple.”

By the end of the war, its major causes – impressment of British deserters from U.S. ships and the blockade of Europe – were rendered irrelevant by the final defeat of Napoleon. This event freed up the all-powerful British navy and tens of thousands of experienced British troops, who promptly attacked and burned Washington, D.C.

Despite thousands of dead, the astounding incompetence of most leaders, and three years of fighting, the war accomplished nothing for either side. Nevertheless, this history of ineptitude and vanity makes for fascinating reading.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Review #24: In Praise of SLOW by Carl Honoré

A non-fiction book all about the 'slow' movement: engaging, enlightening and crucial to maintaining a modicum of sanity in today's rush-rush world.

This is an important book. Subtitled ‘How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed’, the author of this engaging work explores the Slow revolution as it applies to food, city life, cars, medicine, sex, work and children. Probably best known for the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy in response to fast food, ‘Slow’ has branched out in many directions. There are now thirty cities in Italy that have designated themselves as Slow Cities, meaning they do everything they can to consider the quality of life in their urban centers rather than merely the economic impact of regulations. This results in fewer cars, less smog, more biking and walking, more small shops.

Honoré points out that the cult of speed has been with us since the Industrial Revolution – and it’s getting worse, with businesses routinely expecting 60-80 hours from workers each week, young children with the schedules of high-powered executives, rampant road rage and doctors who don’t have time to listen to their patients. The author states: “Boredom…is a modern invention. Remove all stimulation, and we fidget, panic and look for something, anything, to do to make use of the time.” But Honoré is no true-believer – he questions every aspect of the Slow movement and keeps coming up with the conclusion that it just makes sense – life in the slow lane is more enjoyable, more pleasurable, more humane. This is a remarkable book that should be read by every resident of today’s frenzied urban world.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Book Review #23: The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore

This delightfully quirky novel didn't get much attention when it first came out but I loved it. Moore's work should be better known.

Set in Montreal, this novel is the highly inventive story of four friends, a mother and a doctor. Noel, who has synaesthesia (like Liszt and Rimbaud), sees sounds as colors. He also has a prodigious and acute memory. Noel’s mother has Alzheimer’s and he is seeking a cure in his basement laboratory with the help of his friends: handsome, debauched Norval; childlike, Internet addict JJ; and Samira, an Arabic-Canadian former actress who is the love interest of the three males. Studying Noel’s disease is Dr. Vorta who stands in the background of this story like a puppet-master. As the cynical Norval works his way through an alphabet of lovers (as a performance art piece), Samira becomes the ‘S’ in his project, causing a subtle conflict with Noel who is secretly madly in love with her.

Bursting with vitality, ingenious and darkly spangled with a sometimes-grim humor, the novel’s fragmentary style, which includes selections from several characters’ diaries, reflects the skipping stone mind of a synaesthete. The writing is relentlessly witty and a constant delight. Norval extracts himself from a sleeping woman’s limbs with “diamond-cutter caution”. JJ has the “teapot cheeks” of youth and “a preliminary scenario for a goatee”. The story is filled with detailed lore on chemistry, pharmacology and herbology as Noel finds hints in the ancient Arabic book, A Thousand and One Nights, in his hunt for a cure to memory loss. In a lovely, touching denouement, Noel discovers the secret buried in his “pent heart”. For those who like their fiction quirky and energetic, this novel is highly recommended.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Review #22: The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Proof that Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees was not a one-hit wonder.

By the author of the best-seller, Fall On Your Knees, this long novel opens in 1962 when the MacCarthy family moves from Germany to their new home on a Canadian air force base near London, Ontario. Madeleine, eight and already a blossoming comic, is particularly close with her father, Jack, an air-force officer. The loving Acadian mother, Mimi, and brother, Mike, 11, round out this family whose simple goodness reflects the glow of an era that seemed like paradise. But all that is about to change. The Cuban Missile Crisis is looming, and Jack, loyal and gullible, suddenly has an important task to carry out that involves a scientist, a former Nazi, in Canada.

While Jack scrambles to keep his activities hidden from his wife, Madeleine too is learning to keep secrets (about a teacher at school). This novel is all about the fertility of lies, how one breeds another and another. Although the writing flows like a river with a strong current, the profusion of pop references, especially ad slogans, grows tiresome. The author can, however, capture a lovely image in few words: “The afternoon intensifies. August is the true light of summer.” and “…yes, the earth is a woman, and her favourite food is corn.” At times the story is marvelously compelling, as the mystery of a horrific murder in the fields near the base is unraveled. When the story evolves into a trial and its outcome, the story peaks, a conclusion with no easy answers. The last third of the book takes place, for the most part, 20 years later. Here the novel meanders somewhat, losing its ability to captivate with the same intensity. The reader longs to return to the earlier world, which MacDonald has captured in vital detail.