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So, with the NY Times on board and Brad Pitt on board, I had to add my review to the pile before it became outdated (like pretty much all my other reviews).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


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A non-fiction detour

Ok, I know I have not been posting much and part of the reason is I have spent my reading time with books that do not really fit on this blog. But one kind of does so now it gets a post purely because I feel guilty.

So, in a desperate quest to feel more informed about my own finances, I took my dear sister’s advice and checked 76 Investing Tips for Canadian in Uncertain Economic Times out of the library. This book is a “For Dummies” book, recently published (as you can tell in the title) and covers all the basic of personal investing and finances.

This book was excellent for two reasons
1) It is Canadian. Many personal financial books are American and do not touch on important aspects of Canadian investments
2) It is really recent so has great information about current trends (TFSA anyone?)

I am going to admit, I know nothing about investing and financial stuff so this book was perfect for a solid basic introduction to everything from Life Insurance to TFSAs. A lot of stuff covered and makes me feel more confident to at least start planning for the future a little more.

So we can’t always read books that are fun and enjoyable, but if it has to be non-fiction and instructive, it might as well be as useful as this was.

Next, I am moving back to fiction and can lit. with Life of Pi. I am almost done, so the post shouldn’t be too far off.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Canada Reads Recap

Since I was horribly slow at reading Canada Reads books, I figured I would write a recap post that summarizes. I mean, Katy already filled you in on all of them- no point repeating entries. Right? Ya, I know, I am lazy.

So first book to be disqualified on Canada Reads was Doug Coupland's Generation X. No surprise there- it was not a good book. I am going to be honest; I made it about 20 pages in and then returned it to the library. There was just no connection for me to the characters. None at all. I like Hey Nostradamus! but Generation X was just not for me. After reading Katy’s blog about it, I did not regret returning it after only a few pages.

Next to get the boot was Fall on Your Knees. Alright, I didn’t make it through this one either. I mean, I just got bored. I was not in the mood. Ok, I should have tried harder with the Canada Read thing, but what can you do. I was pretty surprised it was the second book to go. I was the most popular book of the lot. It has received a lot of press and is quite popular. But alas, not even popularity can save you on Canada Reads.

To bring it to two, Good to a Fault was eliminated. That meant that my two favorite reads (i.e. the ones I made it all the way throug), The Jade Peony and Nikolski were the final two. I mean, it made sense to me, those were great books! Katy and I have both posted about The Jade Peony already and we both really enjoyed it. I have now read two Choy books on this journey and he really is a great writer. Top Two definitely deserved! As you all know (I assume if you are interested enough to read a blog on Can Lit, you may also follow Canada Reads), Nikolski won.

And Katy has posted on Nikolski already, but I haven’t, so I will just take a minute to describe my feelings on it. I really liked it for a few reasons. First, all the characters were intriguing. Often books that jump between different plot lines are not enjoyable to me. I tend to like one story more than the other so skip ahead and read those parts. With Nikolski, however, I was intrigued by all characters and as the connection between them was exposed, I enjoyed the novel even more. They weren’t forced connections or unrealistic, but simple stories that just passed by each other.

I was also a fan of the Canadian-ness of the book- it was subtle, but Dickner managed to work in a distinctly Canadian flavour to the story. Whether it was the setting of Montreal, or the details of family members roving across the country (from postal outlet to postal outlet) I felt a very strong Canadian connection, which is nice in a Quebecois book (definitely no separatism here!).

Nikolski had a wonderfully modern feel to it, without being weird (*cough* Copeland) and definitely deserved the nod from Canada Reads. I was excited it won. So now, go out and buy it!

So there is your Canada Reads conclusion from the blog. Katy and I both liked the same books and predicted the same winner. We must be twins and psychic.

Next up for me: A quick review of a “For Dummies” book and I am part way through Life of Pi

- Tory

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Redhill and Bemrose

Two quick ones-

I first came across Michael Redhill a few years ago at an archives conference of all places. He had come as a keynote speaker to discuss his new (at the time) book Consolation. The book, which includes links to some beautiful historic photographs from the city of Toronto archives, was a good read. I enjoyed it. Years passed, until last fall when I bought his first book Martin Sloane at a used book sale. Then the book sat on my shelf until a couple weeks ago when I finally picked it up. I am not sure why I waited so long, I liked his talk and I liked his book. The waiting was a bad move on my part- I loved Martin Sloane! Although not having the advantage of being archivally themed, I think I liked it even more than Consolation.

Martin Sloane is the story of a young student, Jolene, who encounters and embarks on an affair with a mysterious Irish-Canadian artist, Martin Sloane. Then one day he is gone, just walks off in the night. Jolene must cope with his departure, which she doesn't do very well. Then a glimpse of him from across the ocean and she is dragged back into his story. Good plot, good characters (although more than once I wanted to smack Jolene back into reality), good writing. For sure worth picking up.

John Bemrose I also discovered at a talk. I saw him speak with other Canadian male authors at IFOA 2009. I had heard of him before, but somehow he got lost in my pile of 'to-reads.' Although he didn't enthrall me at the reading, I noticed his book on my shelf and thought I would give it a go. Well, I should have left it on my shelf. Sorry, but Island Walkers, about a small town in Ontario that revolves around the local mill, gets a big 'MEH' from me. Just not great. Felt like a male version of Anne Marie MacDonald (see review from earlier). Oh well, they can't all be my favorite.

- Katy

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Black Robe

Brian Moore was Canadian for a while, albeit a short while. Born in Ireland, Moore moved to North America in 1948. He lasted about ten years in Canada, before heading south of the border to California. Despite this brief visit, Canada left an impression on Moore that comes out in his novel the Black Robe.

The Black Robe tells the story of a Jesuit priest who is sent to discover the fates of other missionaries. After some persuasion from Samuel de Champlain, a group of Algonquin agree to accompany Father Laforge and his young aide. Throughout their journey both the ‘whites’ and the ‘Indians’ are confronted with the numerous stereotypes that existed in the 17th Century New World (and some that still exist today). Moore paints a picture of early Canada that is at times terrifying- the landscape, the obstacles, enemies and even friends offer little comfort.

The novel, well novella really as it comes in around 200 pages, is wonderfully written. A forte of Moore’s is characterization. My sympathies switched every ten pages, leaving me feeling that everyone was right (and also that everyone was wrong).

Overall, it is a great period piece, something much different than other fiction I have read about this time period. But, there was something distinctly un-Canadian about it. I have no other Canadian books to compare it to; it was closer to other foreign fiction I have read, like a less quirky, less sprawling version of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda and even closer to Heart of Darkness, as the story winds its way towards the unknown. It felt less personal, less about family; which has become the most recurrent theme to date in my exploration of Canadian literature. Not that this is bad, the novel was a good read, it just re-affirms that to be (truly) Canadian you can’t be easily lured away by sunny California.

I have to stray away from Canada for book club, but will return shortly.

- Katy

Friday, February 19, 2010

King Leary

I figured it would be a good idea to read last year's Canada Reads winner. Now that I have finished those from this year, it would give be a good bar to judge them by. It also seemed like an appropriate moment, as Paul Quarrington tragically passed away last month.

King Leary is the story of the retired hockey star Percival Leary. He is invited to Toronto to participate in a ginger ale ad. He leaves the retirement home, bringing with him Blue Hermann, the alcoholic sports journalist from Leary's heyday and Iain, an equally alcoholic young aide from the retirement home. The three are joined by Leary's son Clifford; the ad exec responsible for the ginger ale ad; and Duane the young hockey whiz that is the new 'king' of the game (not to mention the numerous ghosts from Leary's past, who make side appearances as Leary's grasp on reality loosens).

The story is a mix of Leary's present trip to Toronto and his memories of his hockey player days. The novel is hilarious and I often caught myself laughing out loud on the subway. The writing carries the novel, along with the strength of the characters. The plot is neither here nor there and is more a vehicle for characterization, than to move things along; but it works well enough. I can see why it was chosen for Canada Reads, it is very readable by anyone from the snobbiest reader (me) to the everyday hockey fan. It is not an epic Canadian novel, but it is very enjoyable.

If I had to compare it to another novel I have read, it would have to be Horn of the Lamb, which had a similar mix of hockey and humour and that equally drew on the strength of the main character. I will definitely be adding Quarrington to my list of author's to read more of.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

And finally- Douglas Coupland

My last Canada Reads book for this year. I am pretty impressed that I got through them at such a good pace. Once the radio show starts, I will post my vote for winner and see how it measures up.

Douglas Coupland's Generation X doesn't actually take place in Canada, but it does mention Canada often enough to remind us where the author is really from. I have never read any Coupland, so his first novel seems like a good introduction, I was glad this one was chosen for Canada Reads.

The novels is about three 'Generation-Xers' who have taken up residence in a sun soaked resort town in California. The three, all at various stages of discontent with their lives, offer a humorous exploration of the issues facing the generation that was not the baby boomers. First, I have to admit I am not a member of Generation X, I fall into Generation Y (sometimes called Echo) and this might be why I found the characters in Coupland's novel so darn whiney. I wasn't able to relate to them at all: they were self-centered, irresponsible, shallow and incredibly frustrating. It made it hard for me to get into the novel.

The plot didn't have much to offer either, but I did enjoy Coupland's writing. He has a strong style, which mixed in the humorous bits well. I am going to take away from this a (hesitant) desire to try one of his other novels, which I have heard such good things about. Unfortunately, this one gets a thumbs down, just not my cup of tea.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

And now to the other coast...

I was starting to feel like all I was reading were East Coast novels! I have been enjoying them very much (well some of them), but I am glad that the last two Canada Reads books are both B.C. authors. First up, Wayson Choy's Jade Peony.

Atlantic Canadian fiction definitely has some similar themes across the various novels I read: Allistair MacLeod, Michael Crummey and Anne-Marie MacDonald all wrote about family history, with plenty of mythology and folklore thrown in. Wayson Choy, in many ways, is the Vancouver version of these writers. Jade Peony tells the story of a Chinese-Canadian family during the 1930s and 1940s residing in Vancouver's Chinatown. The story is divided into three parts, each from the view point of one of the families children.

The first part, my favorite, tells the story of Jook-Liang. She is the only daughter and has to balance between her responsibilities as a girl in a traditional household and her love of Western culture (mostly, Shirley Temple). She befriends Wong Bak, a deformed elder and an unlikely and touching friendship blooms.

The second story is of the second brother Jung-Sum. He was adopted from another Chinese family when he was younger, although still has memories of his traumatic time with his biological family. Jung-Sum embraces the world of boxing, finding community at the gym.

The final story emerges as the Second World War approaches and the Chinese community begins to attempt to distance itself from the vilified Japanese. The world outside of the tight-knit Chinatown plays a much larger role in third brother Sekky's story. Sekky's world is divided between his attempts to overcome the illness he was plagued with early in life and his love of war games.

The folklore is brought into the novel through Poh-Poh, the children's elderly grandmother, who brings many Chinese traditions to their Canadian home. She firmly holds at least part of the household in the 'old' world, while the children try to find their way into the 'new.'

Wayson Choy is a lovely writer and I enjoyed reading Jade Peony. A very nice introduction to the West Coast. It is a tough race between Jade Peony and Nikolski for my Canada Reads vote.

- Katy

Monday, February 15, 2010


While I waited for the next Canada Reads book to arrive at my local TPL branch, I decided to pick up one of the books I was given for Christmas. Michael Crummey's Galore is my first repeat author of the challenge. I heard him read from the book at 2009's International Festival of Authors and was sufficiently intrigued to add it to my wish list.

Galore, set in the small Atlantic community of Paradise Deep, is a family saga spanning nearly two centuries. Crummey begins with a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("The invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love") and it is evident he draws much inspiration from the South American author. Galore, right from the very first scene when Judah emerges alive from the belly of the whale, is rife with magical realism. Even the inclusion of the family trees at the beginning of the novel reminds us that 100 Years of Solitude, Garcia Marquez's brilliant family epic, should remain in the back of our minds as we read.

The story continues as the fates of two families- the Devines and the Sellers- interact, move apart and ultimately shape the community in which they live. There are far too many characters to detail them all here, but some stood out as favorites (or at least the most compelling, if not likable): Devine's Widow, the witch-like matriarch of the Devine family she embodies the 'old' way of the East Coast through herbal medicines, folklore and one helluva free spirit; Judah Devine, the naked, mute who emerged from the whale becomes an integral part of the Devine mythology as he moves into the world of spiritual sacrifice in part 2 of the novel; and Bride, the spunky wife of Henley Sellers who makes her appearance in the novel asking the newly arrived doctor to pull out all her teeth.

Like River Thieves (my first Michael Crummey novel), Galore has a good plot carried by strong characters. It combines the everyday with a good dose of folklore to keep it interesting. I would argue that Galore is better written than River Thieves as it has a better pace. Does it live up to the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels that it invokes? No, but really what does? The two parts of the novel felt a bit disconnected, as though Crummey couldn't quite find a way to connect the entire story, so just broke it in two. That's about the only bad thing I have to say- I really enjoyed the novel and was glad I had decided to double-up on Michael Crummey.

- Katy

Monday, February 8, 2010

Wayson Choy Double-Header

Ok. I know. I suck at blogging. Whatever, I have been really busy. And it isn’t that I haven’t been reading, I just haven’t been blogging. So to kill two birds with one stone, I am going to sneak in 2 books in one post. This actually is ok, since they are by the same author.

So early January, I went to the EPL and put all the Canada Reads books on hold (I actually had to sign up for a library card to do this…) while I was there, I got in a discussion about Wayson Choy with the librarian and she convinced me to pick up Not Yet while I was waiting for a Canada Reads book to come in. Though this challenge means I usually stick to one book by one author, I was intrigued and I have never read Wayson Choy, so I thought I could handle two of his. As luck would have it, The Jade Peony ended up being in the first wave of books to come in so I read two Choy books back to back.

Not Yet is Choy’s autobiography on his two near-death experiences and then the recovery from his extended hospital stays. It is fascinating and beautifully written and I think I would have got even more out of it if I had been a Choy fan before reading it. Either way, I loved it. Choy is witty and humorous, but still emotional. Choy has no immediate family and is not married (or partnered to someone- he is gay). There are some very touching moments that occur when he realizes that his “family” is strong and loving. With a close group of friends, he is not going to die alone, instead will have his make-shift family close by. It is a great autobiography that also provided some insight into his other novels.

Half way through reading it, the Canada Reads books started pouring in and since I was loving Choy so much, I decided to pick the Jade Peony to start with. The Jade Peony is the story of a family in Chinatown in Vancouver. It is broken into three sections and follows three of the children of the family through parts of their lives. The story really captures what life was like in Chinatown during the 1930s and 40s. We get snippets of news stories to help us place the world in context- news from China on the war with Japan, the Pearl Harbour bombings, etc.

It is tough to compared non-fiction autobiography to a fictional story (especially since parts are written from the point of view of a young girl), but Choy’s writing ability shone through in both books. I missed the wit and humour of Not Yet, but the complexity of the characters and the notion of family and identity rang true throughout both books.

The Jade Peony is probably the first novel I have read about Vancouver’s Chinese population and it was really very fascinating. The notion of being trapped between two worlds- the old country and the new- even for second generation immigrants is so well captured. These themes are so prominent in many Canadian novels- as we are a country built on immigration and really, starting not that long ago (compared to some places). Even Native literature demonstrates a constant struggle between old customs and new lifestyles (see any book by Thomas King). It is why “Canadian” is such a hard identity to describe.

Anyway, to avoid having the longest blog post of all time, I will conclude by saying I am so glad I was introduced to Wayson Choy and both his books are wonderful- in different ways. Check him out- you won’t be disappointed.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Canada Reads x2

It's not that I haven't been reading, it's just that I haven't been blogging.

The Canada Reads books have been steadily streaming into the library and I have finished numbers 2 and 3- they could not have been more different. I am going to somehow tie them together into one blog post though.

First up... Fall on your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, the most successful of the Canada Reads novels, as one of Oprah's Picks and for the numerous awards it has won. The novel tells the story of the Piper family, beginning with the marriage of Materia Mahmoud, a Lebanese whose father moved to Cape Breton and established a successful grocery business, and James Piper, a piano tuner, many years her elder. The couple, their daughters and other members of their small community form the centre of this tumultuous novel. The story has everything you would not wish upon any family: a disowned daughter, unhappy marriage, violence, rape, incest and the list continues.

Unfortunately, the plot weighs down the novel. I kept thinking nothing worse could happen and then it did and then it did again. I am not afraid of 'heavy' novels, some of my favorites are, but Fall on your Knees just didn't hold up for me. The depth wasn't there, I didn't see where all the shocks were central to the plot or character development. In Clara Callan, which had some similar plot lines, Clara's rape was a turning point in her relationship with her sister and a major turning point in the plot; but, it didn't overwhelm the book and I wasn't shocked by it. And past the plot, it didn't have anything to offer me.

On an entirely different note, Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner (translated by Lazer Lederhendler) is the story of three twenty-somethings as their lives diverge, converge or come as close to converging as one can in a small Montreal marketplace. The debut novel is eccentric, wonderfully written and in many ways among the more pan-Canadian novels I have read yet. It manages to span many, many provinces and regions; mostly thanks to Noah's Chipewyan mother who is constantly traveling the middle of the country in her mobile home, but also from the Atlantic coast (loads of fish imagery), to Montreal and all the way to furthest West Coast.

The novel is about wandering spirits, youth dealing with the decisions of their parents and all the wayward meanderings of a quirky, well passed along story. So far it is easily my favorite of the Canada Reads books.

That is 3 down, 2 to go. I am waiting on the others to arrive from the library; in the meantime I have started Michael Crummey's newest, Galore.

Some very sad Can-Lit news:

I haven't made my way around to Paul yet, but I know Tory really enjoyed his King Leary. Sad to lose such a wonderful writer.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Barnacle Love by Anthony de Sa

Has anyone out there ever heard of Anthony de Sa? I never have. I found this book on my bookshelf (it is new, 2008) and it is from Random House, so I assume I was graciously given the book by a friend of mine who works at Random House. But I have NEVER heard of this author. Apparently, this is his first novel and after some digging, I discovered it was short-listed for the Giller. But the whole time I was reading Barnacle Love, I felt like I was missing something, some reason why I was the only one who knew about this writer. Even though I liked it a lot, I kept trying to find a reason why it would have bombed and floated into oblivion.

Despite my digging for faults, Barnacle Love was a surprisingly great book. I really enjoyed it. The writing was excellent, the language great and while the plot wore a little thin after awhile, it was an intriguing story.

Barnacle Love is the story of Manuel, a Portuguese immigrant to Canada and his story as he arrived (by jumping off a fishing boat and swimming to Newfoundland) and then built a life in Canada (mostly in Toronto). The point of view shifts from Manuel to his son, Antonio (Tony), though it is still about Manuel. Manuel has a struggling relationship with his mother, who is back home in Portugal, and his role in the family he left behind. As is usual (it seems) with immigrant stories, Manuel (though he tries very hard) has a difficult time succeeding and prospering in his new country.

Interesting part about this book- once in Toronto, Manuel and his family settle on Palmerston Avenue, which is where Katy lived for awhile! And take my word for it- there are many many Portuguese still there. I loved being able to picture the setting and really know the places that Tony describes. I am sending this over to Katy soon- I know she will enjoy reading about her old hood.

I look forward to more from de Sa, this book was a surprising and delightful find from my bookshelf!

Katy wrote about Rohinton Mistry a few posts ago and I think we will have much more experience with immigrant writing as we continue with our challenge. It plays such a large role in Canadian society, so I am sure the same can be said of Can Lit.

Next, while waiting for my Canada Reads books to come in at the library (I know, I am way behind Katy), I am reading Wayson Choy’s Not Yet. This is an autobiography about Choy’s near-death experience and should prove interesting!


Update: Just got an email, my first Canada Reads book is in, so as soon as I finish up Choy, I will be getting started with Generation X. Better get reading….

Friday, January 1, 2010

End of the Year

As well as this book challenge, I participate in another one on facebook. The challenge is to read 50 books a year. Members are encouraged to define further terms themselves and at the end of August I added my Canada-only parameter. I managed to read 52 books this year, mostly because my commute time tripled in April. Of those 52, only 20 were Canadian, but since I didn't begin the Can Lit Project until later in the year, not a bad total.

Here are the 20 books, for those interested, a couple are non-fiction, but I added them anyway to boost the totals:

  1. Measuring Mother Earth- Heather Roberston
  2. In the Skin of a Lion- Michael Ondaatje
  3. The English Patient- Michael Ondaatje
  4. Consolation- Michael Redhill
  5. Anil’s Ghost- Michael Ondaatje
  6. From the Fifteenth District- Mavis Gallant
  7. Coming Through Slaughter- Michael Ondaatje
  8. Smart Canadian’s Guide to Building Wealth- Pat Foran
  9. No Great Mischief- Alistair MacLeod
  10. Larry’s Party- Carol Shields
  11. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz- Mordecai Richler
  12. River Thieves- Michael Crummey
  13. Green Grass, Running Water- Thomas King
  14. The Horn of a Lamb- Robert Sedlack
  15. A Student of the Weather- Elizabeth Hay
  16. Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen- Kate Taylor
  17. Clara Callan- Richard Wright
  18. A Fine Balance- Rohinton Mistry
  19. The Wars- Timothy Findley
  20. Good to a Fault- Marina Endicott
Here is hoping for another 50 in 2010 and more of those being Canadian.