Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Imperfectionists

I have once again been neglecting my blogging duties, but not to worry I have not been neglecting my reading. This just means that I am 4 or 5 reviews behind (yikes, I have even lost count). But I am going to do something unconventional and skip to the last one I read. Not because it is fresh in my mind, but because for what might be the first time ever, I read a book that is causing a bit of a stir right now. Time to jump on the bandwagon before it gets too full.

Just over two weeks ago my book club picked its next read. One of our esteemed members read a review in the Economist and we all agreed to give it a go. The following weekend I found myself in the Edmonton airport having just finished the Cellist of Sarajevo (review to come…). So I stopped by the bookstore and picked up my next book club pick.

I was beyond pleased that the author turned out to be Canadian (of a sort, born in England, raised in Canada, educated here and in the USA, moved abroad). I immediately texted the esteemed book club member to inform him of my pleasant surprise, to which he replied “well, if I’d known that…” but I was not deterred, I purchased the book and off I went reading!

I was even more surprised when that weekend a glowing review of the book appeared in the New York Times Book Review! Jackpot! The review, by Christopher Buckley, praised the book so much- “[the book] is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off”- I was even more eager to plough through it. Days later the movie rights were bought, by none other than Brad Pitt! My oh my! And it is the author’s first novel to boot!

So, with the NY Times on board and Brad Pitt on board, I had to add my review to the pile before it became outdated (like pretty much all my other reviews).

Without further ado, I present Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. The novel is set largely in Rome and revolves around the staff of a dying English-language newspaper. Each chapter is devoted to a staff member, with their stories all interconnecting. These are spaced with brief chapters on the history of the paper. By the end, you have assembled a puzzle of the newspaper, seeing the newsroom, the foreign correspondents and the readers in one large scene. The individual stories are at times funny, compelling, and often tragic.

The characters include: Arthur Gopal, the obituary writer with a tragic homelife, Herman Cohen, the overzealous corrections editor, Winston Cheung, a young aspiring foreign correspondent, Ornella, the paper’s most eccentric and consistent reader, Oliver Ott, the strange owner obsessed with his basset hound, and many more.

The novel’s strength is in its ability to develop complex characters in such small snippets and to then interweave them into a complete view of the newspaper as a whole. The writing is perfect- easy to read, concise, smart. I won’t gush, the author probably has a big enough ego these days; but suffice to say this book is well worth the read (and maybe even all the fuss it’s getting).

To tempt you with what I have read and not blogged about:

George and Rue- Arthur C. Clarke
Apples to Oysters- Margaret Webb
Cellist of Sarajevo- Steven Galloway
Currently reading: Beatrice and Virgil- Yann Martel

- Katy

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Kanata- Don Gilmor

If there is such a thing as a novel being too epic, this is it. Kanata is a fictionalized account of Canadian history- all the way from David Thompson, to John A. MacDonald to Mackenzie King.

I bought Don Gilmor's novel after hearing that it featured David Thompson. I figured it would be a nice contrast to his journals (see my earlier review). I have to admit, I had high expectations. There are parts of the novel that lived up to these expectations- every part that didn't feature David Thompon, or John A., or Norman Bethune, or Diefenbaker or any other great Canadian. The great part of this novel was the story of Michael Mountain Horse, the fictional character who acted as a framing device for the stories of the more well-known characters.

Unfortunately, the parts with fictionalized accounts of real people felt too forced and disconnected. The people I was most familiar with before reading the novel (like David Thompson) didn't hold true to my image of them. They were underdeveloped sketches of their real selves. I wish Gilmor had found a way to tell Michael M.H.'s story without all the drama of being an epic Canadian novel. The writing is there, the idea was too grand.

A 'famous' Canadian archivist (as famous as there are) once said that Canadian history is the first person, singular. What he meant was that unlike the Americans or British, who frame their history around great men (think Churchill or Roosevelt), Canadian history is about communities and individuals. Gilmor tried to prove this wrong and he failed.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

La Guerre- Yes Sir!

No one has ever said French-English relations in Canada are straightforward, certainly not Roch Carrier, our once upon a time National Librarian and author of the much beloved the Hockey Sweater- well, beloved by everyone except maybe Toronto Maple Leaf fans. Although he is best known for this children's classic, he was also a novelist for adults and much like the Hockey Sweater, his novella La Guerre- Yes Sir! attempts to explain the eccentricities that divide us and bring us together.

The novel takes place in a small Quebec during WWI. The town acts as the backdrop for a fable-like story of conscription, religion, love, family and yes- the dreaded French-English relations. The novel features a variety of soldiers- one on leave, one avoiding going all together, one upon his return and one upon his return in a coffin. These French soldiers, in all their states, are interrupted by English soldiers escorting the coffin of the fallen French soldier. Add in a few dozen drunk villagers and trouble is bound to happen.

The novel is at times terrifyingly violent, but the characters are written with great compassion and the novel is clever and concise. A definitely worthwhile read.


Monday, May 10, 2010

100 Mile Diet

A move back to the non-fiction world. I have been meaning to post about this for awhile and anyone who follows me on Twitter (@ToryBachmann) knows that I tweeted a 140 character review of this book a few weeks ago. I actually won a prize for it. If you follow @cbcreads* every week or so they give away free books to people who tweet a book review. So a few weeks ago I tweeted:

“100 Mile Diet: An interesting idea written by pretentious hippies Key point- when you eat ask yourself: Where did this come from?”

Obviously a few grammar issues, but hey! It is 140 characters and I had to add the hashtag for the contest- what do you expect?

So really, what can I say about The 100 Mile Diet? Well that is it- I really only need 140 characters. Very interesting idea. Asked a lot of great questions. It was just a snobby book.

The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Eating Locally came out a few years ago (I, as always, am behind on the trends) and was written by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. The couple lives in Vancouver and not to be judgmental, but you can definitely tell. If you think of your typical Vancouver hippy, then think of them writing a book this is exactly what it would be like.

The idea, being aware of what you eat and where it comes from, is so important, but I could use without the preachy moments.

Is it going to win any prizes for writing? I certainly hope not. This is definitely a case where the message is more important than the quality of writing. Is it a timeless Canadian classic? Nope. Hopefully the message is, but not this book.

I can say negative things about it, but it really did inspire me to look more carefully at what I eat and where it is grown. I mean, 100 miles is fairly unrealistic (and we live in Canada, can we please use kilometers?) but it made me think and hopefully made a lot of people think about what they eat.

So overall, yes it made me start an herb garden but no it did not make me like the authors.

And now you can look forward to a review of my prize- The Secret Life of Glen Gould

* I would have made this a link, but Twitter is experiencing technical issues and I can't access my followers list

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Travels by David Thompson

A quick jump into the world of non-fiction for me (well, not really quick, the book took me over two weeks to read). This fall, the Champlain Society released a new edition of David Thompson’s Travels. This is intended to be the first in a three volume set of David Thompson’s writings. Travels was originally written in the late 1840s and into the 1850s (there are a few versions; this one replicates the 1850 version). It was never published while Thompson was alive. Later Joseph Burr Tyrell (another famous explorer and discoverer of dinosaurs) edited Thompson’s work and published it through the Champlain Society in 1916. This new edition is edited by William Moreau and contains an excellent introduction (and very useful explanatory notes throughout the text).

For those not familiar with David Thompson, he was a cartographer and explorer in early Canada. Although born in London (1770), he left at the age of 14 to come to North America and never looked back. Thompson worked first with the Hudson’s Bay Company and later with the North West Company. He learned surveying only after an accident left him bed ridden. And survey he did- Thompson traveled vast amounts of land, becoming one of the earliest explorers to cross to the far side of the Rockies. Thompson was a contemporary of Samuel Hearne and Alexander Mackenzie, the former famously quipped that Thompson had surveyed in a short time what would have taken anyone else a lifetime to do.

Although, Thompson is known as the first European to travel the length of the Columbia River; his true legacy is in his maps. Thompson’s maps were used (largely unaccredited) into the twentieth century. His most impressive work, known as the Great Map (1814), spent many years hanging in the headquarters of the North West Company at Fort William. Having seen the Great Map in person (many times) it is impressive even today. First of all, it is massive (probably 12-15 feet long and 5 feet high) and secondly it is incredibly detailed and accurate- even 200 years on. I think Thompson is one of the most underrated ‘great men’ of Canadian history, so if you don’t know who he is head to Wikipedia ASAP.

Enough about Thompson, onto his book: Travels is definitely worth the read, particularly if you are interested in exploration or early Canadian history. It is a slow read and the writing can get a bit dense (he was a surveyor, not a writer after all). He devotes an enormous amount of detail to wildlife, geography, surveying, etc, but also provides many anecdotes about traveling in the New World and some acute observations on Native Canadian life and mythology. Thompson married Charlotte Small, a British-Cree woman, and always had an enormous respect for the people he encountered (note: his travels were in the late 18th and early 19th century, so obviously his bias was towards the ‘British way of life,’ but he remained much more respectful towards the land he was tromping through and the people he encountered than other explorers and fur traders).

If your interest in early Canadian history is fleeting, this might not be the best book for you. It takes some dedication to get through, especially if you have spent the last six months reading nothing but fiction, but the picture that Thompson paints of Canada is unbeatable.

Right now I am reading Don Gilmor’s novel Kanata, which has Thompson as a fictional character, so look forward to some compare and contrast.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

And one against Life of Pi

I thought I should respond to Tory’s post below, as she calls me out for disliking Life of Pi. Before I begin my defence, I have to say I read the novel years ago, shortly after it received the Booker. I was working at a bookstore at the time and I remember (what must have been) Christmas 2003 we only sold two books- Life of Pi and Paris 1919. For my part I tried my hardest to push for Paris 1919 (so if you haven’t read it, head to your local library NOW). That being said it has been over 7 years, so you will have to forgive me if I misplace some details. I should probably re-read it before passing too much judgement, but what fun would that be?

On with the show- Why didn’t I like Life of Pi? Well, in a way I did like it, at the beginning anyway. I was intrigued by the character of Pi, particularly his curiosity about religions; his unusual circumstances; his humour. And then he was on a life boat with talking animals. I have nothing wrong with this in theory; but in practice it just didn’t work. I felt as though I lost all the things I liked about Pi. As the days on the boat progressed and the tiger ate the other animals I felt less and less like I cared. I just didn’t buy into it. It wasn’t believable (not in the do I believe that this would happen in “real” life, but do I believe that in this fictional world, these characters that had been created for me would do this). The whole middle section seemed incongruous with the first part of the novel.

And then the ending, the twist (or not twist)- were they animals or humans? I didn’t mind this part, in a way I felt as though it tied into Pi’s wrestle with the various religions at the beginning. Pi started the novel by exploring truths and we finish the novel exploring the true story. But it was too late, I had lost interest and it wasn’t that surprising of a twist. As the whole story felt as if it was meant to be a fable or metaphor (not a bad thing) that Martel chose to lead us to such an obvious ‘what if’ bothered me. I have complained before about authors not letting me find my own way and Life of Pi fits into that complaint.

All in all, I felt like Martel had a great idea for novel and just didn’t execute it well. When it came out that the idea wasn’t really his (see Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar) I moved Life of Pi firmly into the not like category.

I have placed his new novel on hold at the library. I am 406th in line, but once it gets in I will try my best to be unbiased.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Life of Pi

Alright, I know I am years behind the times, but I just finished reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Really, the timing turned out well since his new book is scheduled to be released very soon. So think of this as a reminder. I didn’t read Life of Pi when it was very popular after it won the Booker Prize because my sister told me it wasn’t worth it.

Well she was wrong. I loved it.

The story is about a young boy, Piscine "Pi" Molitor Patel, who has grown up in Pondicherry India, but is moving to Canada. The novel is really in two parts- first, there is some background/character development in India with Pi, then the second part takes place on a lifeboat when the ship carrying Pi and his family (along with their zoo animals) overturns in the middle of the ocean and he ends up the sole survivor, besides a very large tiger named Richard Parker. There is a third part, much shorter, that ends the story with Pi telling the story of his time on the boat to investigators from the company that owned the boat that sunk.

I think I liked the book so much because of the way Pi is created. His character is so well developed through stories and anecdotes in the first part that when he finds himself alone on a boat with a tiger, it doesn’t seem so far-fetch that he is able to survive. In fact, the only part of the book I didn’t like was the end, when the investigators question the truth of his journey. I felt it unnecessary and undermined his story telling. I get that the end was important for closing the religious metaphor, but I still was not that fond of it.

Pi’s day-to-day life on the boat is so well described, so thoughtful. Martel is truly a great storyteller.

Now, a quick note about Martel. He also writes a blog- it is based around an idea he began a few years ago. Here is how he describes it:

“For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website”

And so he goes- right now he is at 78 books. Only once has the Prime Minister replied. And by PM, I mean his assistant replied, not Mr. Harper. However, recently, Mr. Martel received a letter from President Obama! The letter says he read Life of Pi with his daughter and they loved it. Take that Katy. Even though you don’t like the book, Barack Obama does :)

Next up- another non-fiction, The 100 Mile Diet- I am a good chunk in already, so won’t be too far off.