It's a Book
Hardcover, Childrens, $15.99
For the last few years I have been boring my friends to death with long diatribes about how books are superior to all the personal technology doo-dads that didn’t exist five years ago but which many now can’t seem to live without. Leave it to Lane Smith to succinctly sum up my feelings in a 32 page children’s book.
Plot summary: Monkey is reading a book- an act that completely baffles his friend Jackass, who can not understand anything that isn’t high tech. Monkey tries to explain, repeatedly, that it’s a book.
I went on the internet (yes, ironic, I know) and found that there is a fair bit controversy around this book, which has to do with Smith’s choice of naming the male donkey character Jackass. I’m a little surprised to see so many parents are afraid of their children learning such a word or, heaven-forbid, repeating it. I personally applaud Smith for having the audacity to call a male donkey Jackass. In a book that teaches us to see things for what they are, to do anything else would have been hypocritical.
by Tyler; August, 2010
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life
Hardcover, Entertainment, $26.95
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Which, for the sake of brevity,
shall be henceforth referred to here as RRWSYL)
is Steve Almonds' highly personal account of being a musical
"drooling fanatic" - a person to whom the soundtrack of
life is so important that life itself often has to pause until the
right tune is found. What makes RRWSYL
so much better than merely a passionate, heartfelt examination of
the power of music is that Almond examines his feelings with such
exactitude and honesty that he reaches some rather amazing
conclusions about music in general. I was impressed at the depth and
originality of his thought, although he tries hard to mask his
genius behind an immature fascination with naughty words and
behavior. But isn't rock and roll also about naughty words and
I do realize that my personal liking of the book does not mean that
everyone will enjoy it as much as I did. The fact that I am a male
North American, born in the mid-sixties, who spent most of my
teenage years listening to music in my room, automatically puts me
close to a Steve-Almond-Point-of-View. Your chances of liking this
book are best if you were born, say, between 1965 and 1980. Your
chances of liking this book are also greatly increased if you can
forgive the author his almost sad need to mention every girl he ever
slept with and every person he wishes he could have slept with.
Related to this, your chances of liking RRWSYL
will be greater if you are not easily offended by crude language.
Folks, this is a book about rock and roll, and if that subject is
going to be dealt with honestly then a certain amount (meaning
"a whole lot") of crudeness comes with the territory. What
I'm saying is, "Mom, please don't read this book. Ok?"
That said, RRWSYL
is infectious in it's passion. It has inspired me to reconnect with
fresh, inventive music and discover some of the great artists I have
ignored over the last decade or two, and I'm sure it will affect
many others the same way.
As an added bonus, you can listen to many of the songs Steve raves
about on his website: www.stevenalmond.com
(click on "Bitchin'
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to listen to "Commie Drives
a Nova" ten times in a row
Cigar Box Banjo
Hardcover, Biography, $30.00
admit right away that this is not an objective book review. I had
met up with Paul maybe six or seven times in the last ten years, but
on each of those occasions Paul made me feel as though we were close
pals. If you know me, you know I am a rather closed and private
person, but Paul Quarrington had a gift for making people want to
lower their walls. As Roddy Doyle writes in his foreword to Cigar
Box Banjo; "Ten minutes in the company of Paul Quarrington,
and you're instantly an old friend. It feels like that and - I don't
know how - it is like that." Roddy is absolutely
To me the death of Paul Quarrington is so incredibly wrong that I
still have a very hard time believing it. Paul? Was there anyone who
was more alive than Paul Quarrington?
I am so grateful Paul chose to spend some of the last of his time
writing this book. For a weekend I was allowed to visit an old
friend one more time.
One of the great things about Paul, was that he wrote without
pretension. If you have never met the man, you can pick up Cigar
Box Banjo and the words you read will be pretty much the same
ones Paul would have spoken to you over a beer (or five) and by the
end of the book you will feel like - no you will be - an
by Tyler; May, 2010
The Magician's Elephant
Hardcover, YA, $20.00
This is a terrific and inspirational little book.
Peter is an orphan boy being raised by a crotchety old soldier. He
cannot completely accept the story that his younger sister, Adele,
died at birth, so when a fortuneteller tells him that she lives, and
that an Elephant will lead him to her, Peter is not sure if he
should dare to hope it is true. But when a second-rate magician
accidentally conjures an elephant instead of a bouquet of flowers
(and crushes a noble woman's legs in the process) it appears that
the fortuneteller may have been right. As much as the story that
unfolds is about Peter following his heart, it is just as much about
the dreams, memories and hopes of the rest of a large cast of
characters. In fact one of the things that makes this book so
charming is the message that personal dreams are connected to the
dreams of those around us - and that by helping others we help
It is not just a great story, it is a story that is beautifully
employs striking imagery and wonderful dialogue to create a magical
tone that perfectly fits the story. There seems to be such a
reverence for language here that I can easily imagine several
precocious young readers being inspired to become writers
While it is common to say of books such as this that it is "a
story for children that adults will enjoy as well", I can
honestly say that as much as I liked it, I wish I could have read it
when I was twelve. I think of all the young people who will read
this book and will always cite it as a book that changed their lives
and I envy them.
Hardcover, Fiction, $24.99
Move is the Denis Johnson novel I have been waiting for since The
Name of the World came out nearly ten years ago. For most of the
intervening decade Johnson toiled away to produce Tree of Smoke,
a long-winded and often directionless novel. Enough people confused
its massiveness for merit to earn Tree of Smoke the National
Book Award - an honor that might have had more to do with finally
giving Johnson the credit for earlier (and better) works like Resuscitation
of a Hanged Man or his brilliant first novel Angels.
It is good
to see that Johnson is not letting the National Book Award go to his
head. Only a mature writer who is confident in his own talent would
follow up a critical triumph with a work that could easily be
written off as fluff-fiction. Nobody Move is Johnson's
version of the noir novel, complete with rabbit-punch prose, morally
ambigous characters and violence in abundance. Johnson has always
had a knack with characters who live outside "normal"
America, so the underbelly of the crime world seems a natural fit.
Similarly, the tight no-word-wasted style of noir fiction is
perfectly suited to Johnson's tight prose. The noir novels' jaded
world view wherein virtue and reward have no relationship is also a
natural environment for Johnson, whose protagonists have never
bought into the American myth of meritocracy.
Nobody Move is smart, funny and compelling. It might be
too entertaining to be considered a work of literature. Who cares?
Give me more
by Tyler; June, 2009
The 13 Clocks
Hardcover, Children's, $16.95
Written nearly sixty years ago, James Thurber's children's book The
13 Clocks seems remarkably modern even by today's standards. It
has a dark edge (Hence the Niel Gaiman introduction to this recent
edition) that reminds one of both Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket -
and like both these authors Thurber does not dumb down his prose.
There is a kind of sophisticated sub-text running below the tale,
making it the kind of book even more likely to appeal to adults than
Every great fairy-tale needs a villain and The Thirteen clocks
boasts one themost dastardly- The evil cold Duke. As a youngster he
spent so much time place-kicking pups and punting kittens that his
legs grew to different lengths. His heart is so cold that he himself
has grown cold and he has taken to permanently wearing
jewel-encrusted gloves. "His nights were spent in evil
dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes",
and the wicked schemes the Duke most favours are those that foil any
attempts a foolish suitor might make to marry his niece, the
beautiful Saralinda. The Duke delights in setting impossible tasks
for such suitors and when the suitor inevitably fails...well, let's
just say the Duke's geese have a protein rich diet. As the story
progresses we find that the Duke has an even darker past that at
first revealed and yet their is a certain charm to his unrepentantly
self-aware brand of evil.
That a strange, handsome young man should show up to try to win
the hand of Saralinda is not uncommon- but there seems to
be something...princely?...about the poor minstrel who has the
gall to sing songs insulting to the Duke. Could this be the suitor
who will finally succeed where so many have failed?
It is a tale populated with fantastic characters and
creatures. Stories within stories, parables, tales both tall and
somehow true. The brilliantly whimsical word-play used in this short
tale rivals that found in The Phantom Tollbooth or Haroun and the Sea
of Stories. In short it is a book that appeals not only to children
but to adults who seek the fantastically original in style and story.
The Howling Miller
Paperback, Fiction, $18.00
With the recent translation of The Howling Miller, the
English speaking world at last can read the work of Finland's most
important novelist, Arto Paasilinna. Although one other book, The
Year of the Hare, had previously been translated, only The
Howling Miller is easily available to any North American.
Gunnar Huttunen, ex-Finnish soldier of the recent Second World
War, wants nothing more than to establish himself once again as a
miller in northern part of the country. Buying a dilapidated old
mill, Huttunen works hard to restore it to working condition again.
But there is something different about Huttunen- his brain works
a little strangely. He is prone to long periods of sullenness
punctuated by periods of impulsive behavior. He imitates the beasts
of the forest and some nights he can not help but howl with all his
might. Huttunen's behavior upsets and worries the citizens of his
provincial town and soon several prominent and respectable townsfolk
set out to have the Miller institutionalized. But is Huttunen really
crazy? Is he really a threat?
The themes addressed in The Howling Miller are common. What is
not common (at least in the English Novel tradition) is the style
and structure with which the story is told. The plot is tight and
compulsive. The tone is naive, resembling a folktale, yet it is
undeniably modern - particularly in the ending that soars off into
Perhaps in such cynical times as those we live in, it is
important for us to read such an unapologetically sincere stories
such as this - Stories that do not promote any particular ideology
other than that of caring about an individuals who do not conform
into our comfortable notions of civility.
With or Without God
Hardcover, Religion, $29.95
Gretta Vosper is a United Church minister serving West Hill
United Church in Toronto. Her book With or Without God is a
welcome addition to those which challenge Christian tradition. It is a
solid and accessible attempt to render Christian faith believable. Too
often such books are written from the "left" or
"right" of theological thought and therefore do not go far enough, according
to Rev. Vosper, in addressing the genuine and unvarnished crisis Christianity faces. She is equally critical of both conservative
and liberal camps. In fact, as a "liberal" herself, Rev.
Vosper is most challenging to her own theological roots.
Rev. Vosper contends that to have any intellectual credibility, Biblical faith needs to be
completely re-thought. There are eight essentials for this
rigorous enterprise to proceed: an open mind, passion, creativity, intellectual rigour, honesty,
courage, respect, and balance.
She pulls no punches. The book is full of stories and insights
from many sources, not the least of which is her own ongoing pastoral
experience. Some of the most telling comments concern how the Bible,
Christian Worship, and theological tradition are (or can be) viewed by
people with no church or religious background or experience. How do you explain the "Trinity" or the many stories of
a violent or exclusive God found in the Bible, for example? For
Vosper, tinkering and endless re-interpretation just doesn't
cut it anymore.
Serving as a minister in a local
congregation lends credibility to her critique. This is not some academic exercise.
For those who care about the current and future believability of Christian faith, this book provides challenge and nourishment.
Nazi Literature in the Americas
Hardcover, Fiction, $26.50
One of the most
interesting literary developments over the past year was the English speaking
world's discovery of the late Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño.
Bolaño, who died in 2003 awaiting a liver transplant, was at the time
of his death considered the leading Latin American writer of his
generation. Although his work began appearing in English six years
ago, it was the 2007 translation of The Savage Detectives that
caused a sensation. What made the Bolaño phenomenon particularly
interesting was that it seemed to erupt simultaneously across the
U.K., U.S. and Canada. No single writer or critic can lay claim to
introducing Bolaño to a wide audience- the overwhelming
excitement of book reviewers everywhere, and the public's quick
reaction, created a kind of un-orchestrated hype in a time when all
hype seems orchestrated.
The latest Bolaño to appear in English, Nazi Literature in the
Americas confirms Bolaño as a worthy disciple of Jorge Luis
Borges. It is neither a novel or a collection of short stories, but a
collection of fictional biographies of non-existent right-wing
writers. Bolaño, a life-long socialist, could easily have turned the
format into a launching pad for his personal views; instead he treats
his fascist subjects with a great deal of compassion. At times
heart-breaking, at other times ridiculous, it is less an experiment in
form than a perfect match of imagination and technique. Like all good
fiction, when the reader comes to the end of Nazi Literature in the
Americas, they will retain details from these lives, and these
fictional people will live in our minds and memories. Perhaps they
will intermingle with the biographical details of real people. If so,
Bolaño will have achieved one of the loftiest goals a writer of
fiction can hope for; the creation of fiction that goes beyond
describing or explaining the world; fiction that interacts with the
world and changes it.
An absolute treasure of a book. Originally published in 1964, and
brought back into print now by New York Review Books.
Uncle is a fabulously wealthy elephant whose home (appropriately
called Homeward) is too big to be called a mansion, or even a castle;
it is a city unto itself where some of the smaller towers are only
thirty stories high. Uncles' wealth seems to come mainly from the rent
he charges the inhabitants of Homeward- one shilling monthly, which
isn't much but considering how many dwarfs alone live in Homeward it
really adds up. With his trusty aide, Old Monkey, at his side Uncle
enjoys a life that would be ideal if not for the band of dirty rascals
living in nearby Badfort, led by the odorous Beaver Hateman, who
continually try to take Uncle down a notch or two.
The battles between Uncle and the Badfort crowd are heated. Beaver
Hateman and his gang ( Hitmouse, Jellytussle, Nailrod and many
others) are constantly throwing duckbombs, mud and insults at Uncle.
In return Uncle acts all the more haughty, which drives the Badfort
crowd crazy. Yet despite the animosity a certain civility creeps into
the relationship- Uncle allows his enemies to use his fabulous bath
house (until they get unruly and have to be removed), and the Badfort
crowd are pleased to have the residents of homeward come hear their
wonderful singer, Sigismund Hateman perform (even if some of his songs
make fun of Uncle).
A great book for kids who are still a bit too young for Harry
Potter, or if you are an adult who wishes to remember what it was like
to have an imagination completely unfettered by...well... anything.
Read Uncle and, if only for a few blissful hours, return to a time in
your life when everything was possible.
Paperback, Fiction, $19.95
The Slynx is a novel of
extreme opposites, which is only fitting for a post-apocalyptic
satire. Books that manage to be both heartbreaking and hilarious are
rare: Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is one, as is
Capek's The War with the Newts- and The Slynx
certainly deserves to be in their company. It runs the gamut from
the sublime to the ridiculous.
The novel starts out in somewhat typical dystopian fashion. The time is a few hundred years after "The Blast". The
place is the town of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk. Our hero, Benedikt, is a simple
Golubchik. By day he is
a scribe- copying the words of the glorious leader Fyodor Kuzmich,
Glorybe, Long May He Live, into pamphlets
that the other poor Golubchiks can read. His time off is spent
catching mice (both to eat and to use as currency), dreaming of the
beautiful Olenka, and living in fear of the Saniturions who
arrive without warning to take "free-thinking" Golubchiks
off for "treatment". Through a strange series of
events Benedikt is lifted out of poverty to join the ruling class
of Murzas. Here he is shown the ignorance of his old Golubchik ways,
learns the value of a "spiritual" life devoted to books,
and joins the ranks of the Saniturions himself.
What is not typical of such a dystopian story is that The Slynx
is one of the funniest books you will ever read. While some of the
humour lies in the misinterpretation of Russian poets, the
reader does not need to have a degree in Russian literature to get
most of the jokes. Tolstaya herself has an impeccable pedigree in
this area (her family tree includes the literary translator Mikhail
Lozinsky, as well as the great Leo Tolstoy), yet she savagely makes
fun of those who have a blind reverence for literature. She is even
willing to take a poke at her own family when, in one scene, two men
in a philosophical argument resort to calling each other names until
one of them trumps the other by calling him "nothing more than
What starts as a fairly straight-forward (if somewhat weird)
story veers off into surreal directions, but it is a tale that stays
true to it's own logic. Not every reader will appreciate, or even
like, this book- such is the case with novels as original and
brilliant as this. But if you have a taste for a little silliness in
your post-apocalyptic totalitarianism, then, my dear Golubchick,
this is the book for you.
A Dirty Job
Paperback, Fiction, $17.50
writes candy...yummy, addictive candy. He makes no apologies for it,
saying that the difference between "literature" and
"fiction" is that when you write literature you don't often
get to blow things up. Moore likes to blow things up. He also likes to
poke fun at the sanctimonious and the politically correct, and even
though he writes candy he peppers it with such a wide range of
cultural references that the brain gets a little exercise between
If you have not read Mr. Moore yet, A Dirty Job is a great
place to start.
Charlie Asher has made every effort to reduce the chance that
disaster will befall him. He plays it safe. But despite his every
precaution, Charlie has to deal with the sudden death of his wife.
Left shattered, Charlie tries to carry on and raise his baby daughter
on his own, but soon strange things begin to happen and Charlie, it
seems, has been called to be a "Death Merchant"- one who
protects and transports the souls of the recently departed. If this
new job wasn't enough of an adjustment, Charlie also has to face some
very nasty demons that have been waiting a very long time to slaughter
some humans. Throw in a teenage junk-shop goth-girl, two
Hellhounds named Alvin and Mohammed, and an army of zombie
chipmunks, and the end of the world has never been so funny.
As much as this book is a pure entertainment, Moore also manages
to tug at the heartstrings a bit, handling the subject of death with
Paperback, Fiction, $21.00
The following scenario has
probably played out in every independent book store in the world at
Two booksellers are opening boxes of a recent shipment.
Bookseller Number One picks up a box labeled "Oprah Book Club
Release! Do Not Open Before July 11th!", Bookseller
Number One looks over her shoulder and, not seeing Oprah standing
there watching her, decides to see what author has won the
"Probably Wally Lamb again", she mutters in a voice
dripping with distain.
"Yeah," says Bookseller Number Two "Probably a new
"You know what would be cool? If Cormac McCarthy was on the
Oprah Book Club!"
And they laugh.
Oh, how they laugh.
The thought of thousands of suburban American women reading some
of most graphically violent scenes ever written is so absurd that it
sends shivers of delight up their spines. Cormac on Oprah! Wouldn't
it be funny if Snoop-Dog ran for president? Wouldn't it be funny if
Osama Bin Ladin was on American Idol?
Well folks, the unthinkable has happened. Oprah has picked
McCarthy's The Road as her next book club selection. We can not
guess at what machinations led to this- but certainly more than a few
devout Oprah followers are in for a bit of a shock. But what worries
me is that some people who might otherwise have given this book a try
will now be turned off by that Oprah sticker. Don't be. That sticker
comes right off.
We have become a culture that confuses what we enjoy for what is
good. This is probably natural when consumerism is so rampant. The
Road is an important book, and deserves a wide readership, but
it is not a book many people will enjoy reading. It takes place
after a nuclear apocalypse. There are no more birds. The seas
are dead. The earth is covered in ash. The sun has been hidden from
view for years. The only thing left to eat is what canned food you
can find. In this utterly barren world we follow a father and his
son as they travel down a road, heading toward the ocean the father
has not seen in years and the boy has never seen at all. They are
constantly on the brink of starvation and must always be on the
lookout for gangs of other humans who might wish to dine on their
This is not a book a lot of people would call a fun read. So why
read it at all? Well, for starters, McCarthy might very well be the
greatest living writer in any language and anything he writes is
worth reading. Within the framework of the novel he addresses many
questions regarding Man's relationship with God, as well as the
wisdom of our stewardship of this planet. It is rumoured that
McCarthy reads Moby Dick five times a year in order to steep himself
in a grandiose, biblical style- and this style befits the incredible
seriousness of his subject. But a more important reason to read The
Road might be that it is important to fully understand the real
consequences of nuclear winter in order to do all we can to avoid
it. If it is the job of a novelist to imagine the unimaginable, then
McCarthy does his job admirably well. By making the possibility of a
post-nuclear world more real, he has made it more likely to avoid
that reality- for how can we avoid a future we do not believe could
be real? We have to imagine the worst to be able to avoid the worst,
and Cormac has done the dirty work for us. The least we can do in
return is to read the book.
In Persuasion Nation
Paperback, Fiction, $17.50
George Saunders is
one of those writers who has been slowly growing a fan-base with each
successive book he releases, and In Persuasion Nation will
surly bring more converts into the fold while satisfying long
time members of the George Saunders Army. More than any other short
fiction writer at work today, Saunders work is a vital part of the
debate as to which path America (and the world) would be best to
follow. Anyone who thinks fiction serves no useful function would do well to read this book, for like Swift and Vonnegut before
him, Saunders uses fiction to make arguments more persuasive than
those you'll hear in political debates or op-ed columns. And like
Swift and Vonnegut, Saunders uses a wicked sense of humour to drive
the message home.
That said, there is a wild divergence of style in the twelve pieces
that make up this collection. At times Saunders employs the
folksy-traditional story telling style reminiscent of The Saturday
Evening Post. Other times his stories are bizarre in the extreme -
like Dali paintings in print form. His best work, in my opinion, are
the pieces that employ a stylistic middle-ground, and which remind me
a lot of the great short works in Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome to the
Monkey House. So while there may be "something to please
everyone" here, there is sure to be something to annoy everyone
too. Oh, well.
It should be noted (if you have not figured it out yet) that these
are stories that take stands on issues. So if you think same-sex
marriage is destroying the moral fiber of society, or that advertising
is not encroaching too much into our lives, or that suspending rights
and freedoms is a good way to defend rights and freedoms, then perhaps
you might not enjoy this book.
Paperback, Fiction, $19.95
In the introduction to the
reprint of this novel, Michelle Latiolais proclaims Butcher's
Crossing to be a "western masterpiece" in the company of
Oakley Hall's Warlock and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. It
is hard not to agree with this assessment, as all three novels
transcend the genre while working within it. Yet while Hall and
McCarthy are primarily concerned with the nature of violence, Williams
casts an even wider net, speaking to our sense of manifest
destiny and the desire to subjugate nature to man's financial aims.
More important than theme, however, is the incredibly high level of
writing Williams brings to bear on this so-called "low-brow"
genre. Butcher's Crossing is not just one of the best westerns
you will ever read, but one of the finest novels period.
The story follows the idealistic young Will Andrews, who leaves
Harvard when convinced by Ralph Waldo Emerson to forge his identity in
his relationship to nature. He heads for Butcher's Crossing, a small
Kansas town on the edge of the frontier, where he meets Miller; a hunter
with a tale of a hidden valley full of buffalo. With a head full
of notions of adventure, Andrews offers to finance the hunting party
and the two men, along with a skinner and a camp man, head out for
Colorado. After a long hard journey, the men find the fabled valley,
and are soon hard at work slaughtering the enormous number of buffalo
they find there. However they become so intent on the kill that an
early mountain snowfall catches them by surprise- and they are trapped
in the valley until the spring thaw. Not surprisingly, when spring
arrives and Andrews can return to Butcher's Crossing, he is a changed
man. What is surprising is that over the winter the world seems
to have changed as much as he has.
Anyone who has read John William's novel Stoner (scroll down
seven recommendations to read the staff pick) will be familiar with
the unadorned but powerful writing. I believe it is the mark of a
truly great writer when landscapes we have read about hundreds of
times in hundreds of books are described in ways that seem fresh and
original. The reader is made to feel that they are experiencing the
land for the first time- just as the character Will Andrews is
experiencing it, and the descriptions of Andrews' thoughts and
feelings are intense enough that the reader will feel a deep empathy
Yet this is a metaphorical novel. The coming of age of Andrews is
deliberately paralleled with the coming of age of his country. The
headstrong folly of youth - the feeling the young have that they can
engage in reckless adventure and no harm will become them- may have
been a nation trait at the time of the great westward expansion. It
has been suggested that when this book was written in the early
1960's, Williams intended it as a warning against similar folly, as
America moved closer to sending troops to Vietnam. Whatever Williams
may have intended, the message is one we can never hear enough times.
A Religious Orgy in Tennessee
Paperback, History, $23.95
I used to have a quote of
Mencken's taped up to my wall beside my desk it read as follows: There is always a well-known solution to every human
problem--neat, plausible, and wrong. -H. L. Mencken,
Prejudices: Second Series, 1920.
I don't know why, but this
quote makes me smile. It also encouraged me to think a little bit harder about
things and try to look at problems and life from a few more angles.
I have discovered
recently a new quote from Mencken that might end up replacing this one on my
wall of fame: It is even harder for the average ape to
believe that he has descended from man. -H. L. Mencken
I have just
finished A Religious Orgy in Tennessee, a collection of Mencken's
reports on the Scope’s “Monkey” Trial, and as a bonus also included in this volume are both of his
obituaries of William Bryan
(he had to rewrite it, as his first version was far too scathing) and a
transcript of Bryan's cross-examination at the hands of Clarence Darrow.
As a product of an Albertan
public education, I knew very little about this trial or of any of the key
players (let's be honest here, I have polled people in my age group and not one
person feels they were taught any real history of North America). Bryan was a three time presidential nominee for the Democrats and he is
quoted during the trial as scoffing at the notion that man is a mammal (why the
Republican's don't pull that fact out when we bash W. is beyond me…).
I really only grabbed this
book as I knew of Mencken, mainly from quotes, and my journalism courses have
caused me to start re-looking at a few of my journalistic "heroes". I
have no words really to equate how beautiful this book is, or how completely
against everything I was taught in Journalism school it is.
Mencken was a wordsmith of
the finest order. He wrote with wit and his acerbic criticism of Bryan could be
unmatched anywhere. His criticism, and satire, of the fundamentalist mentality
brought tears to my eyes. Hell, he is even credited for coining the term "monkey
As the flyleaf of this book
states, now that we are seeing the rise of "intelligent design" this
collection "has never seemed more timely…or timeless"; however it is
with a sad shake of the head that I realize we are left with no one like Mencken
to show us our folly. No one would dare rip at our leaders as he did, nor
champion our defenders.
This such a
thought-provoking novel that it is difficult to know where to begin
describing it. A novel of ideas, that could certainly be read as an
"anti-intellectual" book as well. It is a parable on the
dangers of excessive self-indulgence, yet not the kind of
self-indulgence we are accustomed to being warned about. As is
often the case with highly original novels, different readers will
draw different conclusions: there are so few other books like it that
a reader has few points of reference from which to compare and judge.
It is what it is.
The story is narrated by a nameless man in his mid-thirties who has
suffered a horrific accident. This undisclosed accident results
in both a long medical recovery and a massive legal settlement in our
hero's favour. But although our protagonist manages to recover his
physical self, his mental condition seems to have been more deeply
altered. The narrator soon finds himself fixated on recreating a
vision (is it a real memory? a false one? A dream?) in which he is in
an apartment, smelling the frying liver from the apartment below and
watching the black cats on the roof of the building opposite. With his
new found wealth and the help of the facilitators at Time Control UK,
he is able to recreate the scene in reality. Through repeated
re-inactions, the narrator achieves a blissful coma-like condition,
and he soon finds himself re-enacting other different scenes in order
to achieve this state again. The story gains momentum that mirrors the
narrators propulsive mania and many readers will find themselves (as I
found myself) hooked deeply. However, the re-enactments take on an
increasingly violent tone and things spiral out of control (or does
the narrator controls the spiral?) until the inevitable end.
Remainder caused a literary sensation in Britain in 2006,
and was lauded by many reviewers as the best novel of the year. It has
yet to achieve wide readership in North America- which is all the more
reason to sing its praise. Buy it. Read it. Love it. Pass the word.
Hardcover, Fiction, $32.95
I hate to use the cliché
"I couldn't put this book down", but forgive me, I
couldn't put it down. With haunting prose Michael Redhill
depicts both the harsh, developing Toronto of the 1850's and
bustling development of the city in 1997, while also managing to
create characters that I found myself caring deeply for. This
desperate vision of a city and its humorous and fragile inhabitants
is truly unforgettable.
English apothecary J. G. Hallam arrives in Toronto in the
mid-1800's, at the urging of his father who wishes him to open shop in
the new world. Instead of success, however, Hallam encounters loneliness
and despair- emotions that are deepened by his business failures and separation
from family. He becomes a reluctant partner in a photography firm, and
captures the images of the developing city with his lens. These
photographs, however, are lost in a shipwreck on Lake Ontario.
Fast Forward to 1997, and we meet Prof. David Hollis, a man
obsessed by the idea that the strongbox containing Hallam's priceless
photographs is on a site that is slated to be turned into a new arena.
Alone in his quest, and suffering from a
debilitating disease, Hollis takes his own life beneath the waves of
Toronto Harbour. From here we are transported to the modern day, where
Hollis's widow Marianne and future son-in-law struggle to find meaning
in their lives by taking up the search for the photos. The loneliness
felt by Marianne is an uncanny echo of that unbearable sadness felt by
the photographer Hallam- and in this and many other ways Redhill
seamlessly weaves the two time frames
Consolation was such a pleasure to read. I truly got lost
the narrative and completely identified with his bold and sympathetic
Life is Meals
James and Kay Salter
Hardcover, Cooking/Reference, $36.50
There are so
many reasons to recommend this charming book that it is hard to know
where to start. Here is a book that takes thirty years of the Salters'
experience with food, wine and friends, simmers it down to four
hundred pages and then spices it up with recipes, history, ephemera
and some incredibly useful tidbits of information. You do not have to
be a "foodie" to love this book, but reading it will
certainly awaken your appreciation of a well put together meal; and
that in turn makes life more enjoyable.
Then there is the simple beauty of the book itself; the arrangement
of "daily readings" that divide the book into bite sizes;
Fabrice Moireau's lovely ink illustrations that perfectly match the
passionately detailed style of the text.
Then, of course, there is the writing. James Salter is certainly
one of the greatest American authors of his generation. His best works
-novels written in the Nineteen-Seventies and Eighties- were widely
ignored when first published, but now are regarded as among the finest
fiction of the last century. The books' epigram (I intend that my
last work shall be a cookbook composed of memories and desires...
- Alexandre Dumas, 1869) suggests that this may be Salter's last work.
If so, anyone yet unfamiliar with him has a wonderful opportunity to
make his acquaintance.
These reasons, and many more, combine to make Life is Meals the
kind of book you can proudly give as present - and hope someone is
astute enough to give to you.
Vila-Matas has produced a
book that follows in the grand tradition of Jorge Luis Borges;
blurring the line between literary criticism and literature
Marcelo, a lowly office clerk, once wrote a novel about the
impossibility of love, but suffered such trauma over having to
inscribe a dedication to his father that he has not written ever
since. Now, however, inspiration has taken hold of Marcelo once again
as he decides to write a history of all the literary "Bartlebys";
those who, like him, chose not write.
From Jaun Rulfo (who claimed he did not write because of the death
of the uncle who gave him all his ideas) to the exclusive J. D.
Salinger (who Marcelo meets on a New York City bus), this is not only
an exhaustive catalogue of real writers, but a few imaginary ones as
well. Interspersed with snippets of the life of Marcelo- a character
straight out Kafka (or Borges, or Melville, or Beckett, or...)- the
overall effect is both intelligent and heart-felt, smart and wise and
There Will Never Be Another You
Hardcover, Fiction, $32.95
That we live in what has been called the “post-9/11 world” is in many
ways indisputable. For the past five years, the events of that day have shaped
foreign and domestic policy in the United States as well as the rest of the
world, spawning a seemingly endless stream of rhetoric that threatens to numb us
into a state of conditioned paranoia and a sense that the larger world is
impinging upon us in ways that most of us were previously able to ignore.
Apparently gone are the days of self-serving isolationism, and here to stay (for
the short term, at least) are times underscored by the recognition of an
intangible external threat that hovers overhead like Tom Hanks’ invisible
braincloud in Joe Versus
It seems fitting,
then, that Carolyn See’s new book, There Will Never Be Another You,
opens on September 11th, 2001 with the death of Edith’s husband,
Charlie, and the falling of the World Trade Center. Set in Los Angeles and
alternately narrated by Edith, her dermatologist son Phil, and Andrea, the
daughter of a kidney transplant patient at the UCLA medical centre, the novel
takes place in the near future but shirks a futuristic outlook. Instead, See
focuses on themes of loneliness and alienation set against the backdrop of a
California that has become a parody of fear and vigilance resulting from the
American “war on terror.”
While Phil’s wife,
Felicia, stocks the cupboards with canned goods and bottled water in
preparation for an ever-looming yet nebulous war, Phil is recruited by the
military to participate in a top-secret project at UCLA where he is one of an
elite group of doctors assigned to a rapid-response team on the lookout for
potential victims of biological or viral attack. Yet even in this newer,
high-risk, high-security world, See’s novel is populated with characters whose
lives are eerily familiar, and not so unlike the ones people had before 9/11
ever happened: Edith, widowed for the second time and desperately trying to stave
off the loneliness of growing old alone; Phil and his dysfunctional family,
complete with a rebellious teenage daughter and an 11-year old son who is angry
at the world; Andrea and her Chinese boyfriend, Danny, who struggle to overcome
the cultural and social differences that their relationship throws into sharp
relief. In each case, See chooses to focus on the individual and his or her
struggle to make it, to find happiness in the world, regardless of its new
vocabulary and new priorities. It is in this that There Will Never Be
Another You finds its strength and its story.
There is a
substantial amount of hope this book, which can be interpreted as something of
a double-edged sword. See’s novel is a fresh yet candid reminder that, no
matter how many titles we may give it, the world is still a place where people
die, where people suffer, where sometimes it’s difficult to choose to be happy.
Watching her characters as they attempt to come to terms with life’s
smaller-scale but no less perilous threats, she reminds us that those are the
ones with the potential to overwhelm us but also the potential to make us
better – those are the ones that give us a chance, perhaps, to be more whole as
The story is the life of William Stoner, the son of poor farm folk.
Sent to university to study agriculture, Stoner discovers his calling as a
teacher of English literature. Told in prose that is as plain, honest
and powerful as the character it describes, the book shows how by
following his dreams and staying true to his principles Stoner is made
to suffer. Cut off from advancement in his university because of
a personal clash with the department head, Stoner both despairs and
perseveres- ultimately finding his passion again. Likewise he endures
a loveless marriage until, however briefly, his is allowed to be fully
I cannot use such worn out words and phrases as
"inspirational" and "a testament to the endurance of
the human spirit"- for these descriptions have been hijacked by
the worst pap of inferior writing which dominates book clubs and
bestseller lists- yet Stoner is both these things. It rings
true in the heart of the reader with quiet, simple insistence.
Voyage Along the Horizon
Paperback, Fiction, $24.00
We have become accustomed to the idea that a novel can not be both escapist entertainment and intellectually stimulating- Voyage Along the Horizon belongs to that delightful class of novel that manages to be both. While partly a parody of Nineteenth-century sailing adventures, it is less a mockery than an experiment in grafting the popular genre of one era with the meta-fictional sensibilities of another. Marías
comments on the folly of the search for absolute truth, while at the same time
delivering a story packed with ripping adventure. Perhaps only a nineteen year
old writer would have the audacity to attempt something like this, (which was
how old Marías was when he began writing it) but very few writers would have
such well developed skills as Marías did at that young age.
The main story within the book is that of the voyage of the Tallahassee; a
steamer/sail boat headed for Antarctica with both scientists and artists alike.
One passenger, the English novelist Victor Arledge, is less interested in the
trip than with discovering the truth about a fellow passenger, Hugh Bayham, who was once the
victim of an incredible kidnapping. However Arledge's attempts to uncover the
truth are constantly foiled by a series of incidents that are probably much more
astounding than the story Arledge is trying to uncover.
The voyage of the Tallahassee itself is but a novel within the novel
(and both novels are called Voyage Along the Horizon); written by one
Edward Ellis and read aloud by one Holden Branshaw (or is it Horden Bragshaw?).
A novel written by Ellis in order to explain the mysterious reclusion and death
of Arledge. A large portion of the book deals with a different narrative
entirely, as the past of the ship's infamous captain Kerrigan is retold in all
its horrific splendor- and of course the veracity of this narrative is
questionable as well.
One of the many games afoot is that several characters within the book (an one can assume the reader as well) are obsessed with the discovering "the truth". Arledge is
obsessed with finding the truth about Bayham- and this obsession leads to his downfall.
Similarly Arledge's would-be biographer (Ellis- whose name we discover only at the novels end) is similarly obsessed, and similarly doomed.
I don't believe I will give away the ending by saying there is no ending to
be given away. If this book teaches us any thing, it is that when the voyage is
this much fun the destination hardly matters.
I have often heard the
craft of writing compared to the craft of carpentry, and the building
of a novel compared to the building of a house. So the other day when
I heard homebuilding icon Mike Holmes complaining that most houses
built forty years ago are in better condition today than those built
five years ago, it occurred to me that something similar is happening
in the realm of literature- most stuff being written today is just not
going to stand up even ten years down the road. Thank God then for a
writer like Keith Maillard who knows which way the taps should turn
and how to install in-floor heating that is up to code. He has honed
his craft through decades of hard work, and his novels are
concerned more with getting to the truth of the human heart than with
the dazzling pyrotechnic displays lesser writers use to distract you
from the fact they have nothing to say.
Running is the first book in what might well be the crowning
achievement in Maillard's writing career; a four book cycle entitled Difficulty
at the Beginning. In lean, clear prose reminiscent of Richard
Ford, Maillard introduces the character of John Dupre, a high school
student whose intellectual, spiritual and physical longings pull him
in a multitude of directions. The novel contains much of the nostalgia
and innocence readers have come to expect from a coming-of-age novel,
but Maillard expertly inserts just enough unsettling elements to give
the book a vividly disturbing edge as well. The reader is left with
the feeling that as this series unfolds, the books taken together will
be greater than they are individually. Getting back to the carpentry
metaphor; Running may prove to be the very solid foundation
that an architectural wonder will arise from.
The Birth House
Hardcover, Fiction, $29.95
Random House’s New Face of Fiction series has provided me with some of my
favorite books; Beth Powning’s The Hatbox Letters and Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake
to name but a few. So it was with great anticipation I opened this year’s
addition to the series. Ami Mckay’s The Birth House does not
Set in Nova Scotia during World War 1 in the small seacoast village of Scots
Bay, the story revolves around the fascinating main character, Dora Rare. Dora
is the young midwife of the community who’s caring and knowledge are the
backbone of the health care system of the village. But times they are changing
and the scientific medical system is threatening to eliminate the old ways of
childbirth and herbal health care. Yet, despite it’s positive look at the old
ways of caring, this is not the world seen through rose coloured glasses, but
rather an honest portrayal of the harsh realities of living in an isolated
community early in the last century. The story, told through letters, newspaper
articles, herbal remedies and the voice of an unforgettable character, weaves a
mesmerizing picture of world so different from the highly scientific one of
today. Dora manages to preserve the ancient art of midwifery and to nurture the
community around her at the same time. I look forward to Ami McKay’s next
novel with great anticipation.
The Inheritance of Loss
Paperback, Fiction, $22.00
It was with great anticipation I opened Kiran Desai’s newest
book, The Inheritance of Loss. Her first novel, Hullabaloo in
the Guava Orchard has remained one of my favorite stories about the Indian
subcontinent with a hilarious cast of characters and a fascinating
story. This new novel covers much greater ground both literally and
figuratively. The story (set both in an isolated house in the
Himalayas and in New York City) is both complicated and compelling.
The effects of colonialism linger on as the aging judge and his young,
orphaned granddaughter cling to an air of English respectability as
their cook dreams of the good life his son is sure to achieve in
America. Of course, in New York, things are no better and the son too
is living life on the edge. The granddaughter’s tutor and romantic
partner is also striving for a better life as part of a local, Nepali
independence movement. When the insurgency threatens their way of life
the characters have carved out for themselves, chaos ensues. This is
not as light a story nor as easy a read as her first novel, but The Inheritance of Loss
is worth the effort. Desai comments on globalization, terrorism, and
multiculturalism in a manner that is both insightful and entertaining.
The humour still is there, except this time it is blacker.
A Time of Angels
Paperback, Fiction, $18.95
Sometimes you really can
judge a book by its cover. At least, that's the reason I picked up A
Time of Angels- It really is a beautiful looking book. The
magical-realism of the story itself did not disappoint. Set in modern
day Cape Town, South Africa, A Time of Angels is a virtual
mosaic of immaculate artistry and culture. It is the tale of Primo and
Pasquale- best friends since childhood- both Jewish men born in Italy
who immigrated to Cape Town as a result of the German occupation.
Primo works as the neighborhood soothsayer, while the gregarious
Pasquale is famed for his Italian bakery. Both men fall in love with
the beautiful Beatrice- who Primo eventually woos and marries. Our
story truly begins twenty years later, when Beatrice leaves Primo for
Pasquale. In a fit of desperation, Primo takes the devil as his
companion and withdraws from society.
Throughout the novel Schonstein dodges through Cape Town's cultural
underbelly and finally journeys into Heaven and Hell (which we
discover is comparable to a week spent in Monte Carlo). A vibrant
assortment of characters weaves this novel into an exhilarating
tapestry- from prostitutes and madams to a good-hearted tailor and the
Virgin Mary. This is an enchanting novel- best read in a warm corner
while waiting for the summer to return.
Paperback, Fiction, $15.99
I was very sad today (March 30, 2006) to learn of
the passing of the Irish writer John McGahern. I would like
to take this small corner of cyberspace to remember this man who was
not well known in North America, despite often being cited as the
greatest living Irish author.
Of all McGahern's great works, I would personally recommend
his 1979 novel The Pornographer. It is the story of a young man
who makes his living writing the most outrageous (and therefore, most
typical) pornographic stories. This pornographer deals with the same
sort of issues any young man might deal with- he gets involved with a
woman and he behaves cowardly, yet he behaves with great honour to his
dying aunt, who he visits regularly. In short the protagonist of this
novel is a great man and an awful man- as fully human as any character
in any novel. I have often pondered how we all do sordid things to get
food on the table- and yet how great our capacity for love can be
despite all our terrible actions. This novel has haunted my memory
almost constantly since I read it over three years ago. I think of it
more often than any other book I've ever read- in fact I had just
thought about (and ordered a copy for the store) not an hour before
hearing of the authors' death.
I believe John McGahern wrote the kind of books that made
us better people for having read them. He will not be soon
The Space Between Us
Hardcover, Fiction, $29.95
Set in Bombay, The
Space Between Us is the story of two contemporary Indian women: Sera Dubash,
an upper-class Parsi housewife, and Bhima, the woman who works as a
domestic servant in her home. The two are bound together in an
intimate relationship that almost resembles the familial. Bhima is
privy to many of the secrets in Sera’s household, including the
physical abuse that Sera routinely suffered at the hands of her late
husband, Feroz, and in return for her years of faithful service,
Sera supports Bhima’s granddaughter, Maya, in her struggle to
receive a university education. But despite their shared history,
traditional issues of caste and class intrude upon the women’s
relationship, and when Maya becomes pregnant, their personal bond is
threatened by the revelations that surround the young girl’s
pregnancy and abortion.
Umrigar’s women are portrayed in heartbreaking, intimate detail,
but the strength of the novel emerges most clearly in the tension
between Bhima and Sera and the often shifting landscapes of loyalty,
trust and love that their relationship explores. While on the surface
they possess a shared experience based on the how Indian culture and
society treats them as women, this bond cannot ultimately compensate
for their economic and social differences. Umrigar deftly navigates
both of their worlds by exploring not only how they intersect, but
also by focusing on how fragile and tenuous the connection between
them can be. One can read the “space” in the title as referring to
a great many things in this novel, and Umrigar layers her
relationships in such a way that one is compelled to ponder, over and
over again, what that space is and what it means. Book club members
should take note, because Umrigar’s is a novel that begs – and
deserves – to be talked about.