Monday, June 28, 2010

Summer Reading

It's true that newspapers and magazines and publishers have been releasing "summer reading" lists since the beginning of May, but I prefer to hold off until summer has actually arrived. According to the calendar, that happened last week and since July 1st is just around the corner, I think it's safe to declare the season of summer reading open.

For me, summertime reading is about picking up forgotten books from around the house – books I've been meaning to read, books I stumble upon when rearranging and want to read again and, of course, those books that have achieved annual read status. Summer reading is also about books found at yardsales, picked up in borrowed or rented cottages and/or swapped with friends. In short, despite what most publications would have you believe, I am convinced that summer belongs to the well-loved and battered books, not the new blockbuster bestsellers.

So, what will I be reading? Here's my realistic list (that is, books I have and can read in the space of two months):
The Princess Bride by William Goldman – This has been an annual read for a long time now; I don't see that changing any time soon.     
Summer Sisters by Judy Bloom – It's been a few years since I read this and I'm ready to dig it out again.     
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges – A birthday gift; I do love short fiction.     
Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski – Some journalistic non-fiction for good measure.     
Bloom by Michael Lista – Summer is a great time for poetry, because you can read it at a leisurely pace.
I figure a book every two weeks is an achievable goal. Generally, though, I read faster than that, so if I get a chance, I'll read some of the other books on my to-read list, which never seems to get any shorter.

Now, besides what's on my little list, I would recommend the following as great holiday/beach/cottage/hammock reads:
The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown – Engaging and award-winning.     
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones – Be prepared to pick this up and not be able to put it back down.
Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro – It's a short-story novel and it's a classic of CanLit for a reason.     
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden – Gripping stories deserve the space and time afforded by long summer weekends.     
Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findlay – Dramatic and suspenseful, it's brings a little weight to the sometimes too light/sweet summer fare.      
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel – It's a little smutty, but that's well balanced by the engrossing story well-imagined pre-historic setting.

For other, perhaps more contemporary, summer reading lists, check out The Walrus, NPR, Salon, The Globe and Mail, The Gazette and The New York Times. 

Image shown a photo of books at a yardsale, on sale for $1 a piece.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Trillium Award Winners Announced

Ian Brown, who is currently eating is way across Canada in the name of the Globe and Mail, is having quite a year. His remarkable sort-of memoir, The Boy in the Moon (Random House Canad) won the Trillium Award for the best English-language book by an Ontario author. Brown has also won the Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction and the B.C. Book Prize.

The Trillium Award for the best French-language book went to Ryad Assani-Razaki for his short-story collection Deux Cercles (VLB éditeur). It's his debut collection and deals with issues of alienation and immigration.

The Trillium awards for poetry went to Karen Solie (English-language) for her collection Pigeon (House of Anansi Press), which also won the Griffin Prize earlier this month, and to Michèle Matteau (French-language) for her collection Passerelles (Les Éditions l'Interligne). Matteau is a novelist and Passerelles is her first collection of poetry (with its success, we can only hope to see more of her poetry); her first novel À ta santé, la vie! won the Trillium Award in 2001.

Congrats to all the winners. The Trillium Award is worth $25,000, which is a pretty nice payday really.

Image shown a collection of the covers of the winning books.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Graphic novels have gained a much more mainstream popularity lately, especially after some big ones (Watchmen, Sin City) were turned into movies. Graphic memoirs, though, are less common, even when they've also been adapted into successful films. Marjane Satrapi's memoir Persepolis: a story of childhood combines stark black-and-white drawings – arranged as comic panels – with conversational text: when the characters aren't speaking to each other, Satrapi speaks directly to the reader.

I first read Persepolis in a first-year university history class. I did not enjoy the course, but because it introduced me to Satrapi, I don't regret taking it. Satrapi is Iranian, and historically speaking, Persepolis is as much a personal history as it is a narrative take on how Iran has changed over the last 40-or-so years.

Satrapi was just a kid when the Islamic Revolution broke out, but because her parents were vehemently opposed to regime change that was taking place, her early teenage years were filled with history lessons and and anti-fundamentalist discussions. And those values and strong patriotism run deep in this portrait of a young girl in a changing Iran.

That angle, remembering how the Revolution interrupted her childhood, is one of the aspects of Persepolis (besides the graphics) that make it interesting to read. Besides being a generally entertaining story (there's conflict, coming-of-age, angst and other delightful memoir tropes), Satrapi's perspective is a fascinating one, in part because she was sent to school in France after the Islamic Revolution succeeded, which sealed her memories rather than letting them become clouded or confused by the ensuing social overhaul.

Her memories of being angry and confused by the introduction of the niqab and the ban on western culture come across as still raw, aided by the expressive drawings that illustrate a changing world more clearly than words could.

Satrapi's childhood is entwined with the Revolution and her ability to both describe things in very personal detail and also take a step back to give a more distanced viewpoint makes this a very compelling read. And, despite the heavy-ish nature of the subject matter, the graphic-nature of the memoir reminds you that some parts are funny; their simplicity work to both add lightness to the story and draw you into the truly devastating parts.

I always appreciate it when authors take a genre and then do something unexpected with it. Persepolis is such a success in this way that I'm almost surprised more authors/artists didn't try to follow in Satrapi's footsteps. But, if they were intimidated, I wouldn't be surprised. Satrapi is a literary triple-threat: writer, illustrator and historian. And she's got a sharp wit on top of all that, which adds a little edge to her memoir, keeping it fresh and relevant. Despite how often we seem to hear or read something about Iran, you're seriously missing out if you give Persepolis a pass.

Persepolis: a story of childhood
by Marjane Satrapi
First published in 2000 (cover image from Pantheon Books edition)

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Poetics of Wimbledon

As poetic inspiration goes, sport may not seem like a much of a muse. Certainly, it isn't one of the traditional Greek ones, but sports and poetry have been coming together for quite some time. From Ernest Thayer's comical baseball classic, "Casey at the Bat" to A.E. Housman's moving "To an Athlete Dying Young" and the more recent, and racy, hockey poetry by Canadian Billeh Nickerson ("Why I love Wayne Gretzky - An Erotic Fantasy" is especially naughty while remaining PG), sporty poetry is an under-covered genre.

That may all change though, because for the first time ever, Wimbledon - the Grand Slam of grand slams - has appointed a poet laureate. Englishman Matt Harvey won the position and will be writing a poem a day for the entirety of the two-week tennis tournament, which began today. The poems are being published on the Wimbledon website under the heading Wimblewords and, if the first two are any indication, this will be a great fortnight for tennis fans and poetry lovers alike, even if some of the pieces get a little silly (a poem a day for two weeks is a tall order when you have millions of people watching you).

You can actually listen to Harvey perform his first poem, "The Grandest of Slams" (played over a lovely little montage of Wimbledon moments), which he wrote in the lead-up to the tournament.

Image shown Matt Harvey at Wimbledon (from

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Golden Compass

Novels with child protagonists that aren't specifically written for young children present a unique challenge. The child needs to be grown-up enough to capture the attention and interest of an older reader while simultaneously staying young enough to be believable. Lyra, in The Golden Compass certainly fits those parameters. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what age group The Golden Compass is aimed at, but I'd guess Philip Pullman was going for a YA book that adults would equally enjoy.

Perhaps the most important, found details of the novel are these: it is set in a world that resembles ours, but is not ours (it opens in Oxford, England, but in a strange hybrid of "the olden days" and the future); all the people in this world have a personal daemon, in the shape of an animal, that is both connected to them and separate - essentially, the daemon reflects a person's true nature, and often the person and daemon consider themselves a "we" or an "us," rather than an "I."

So, Lyra is brought up at Oxford by the Scholars. She's about 11 when the story begins and spends most of her time playing with the children of the servants of Jordan College. Although she's never shown much interest in school, when she overhears her uncle, Lord Asriel, telling the explorers about his travels to the far North, and the Dust he observes there, and the city that's visible in the sky through the Northern Lights, her curiosity is piqued. Of course, no one will answer her questions, but when children start disappearing in her city (taken by "the Gobblers" of unknown origin) and her best friend goes missing, she gets distracted. Especially when the beautiful and enchanting Mrs. Coulter (whose daemon is a golden monkey) comes to the college and offers to take Lyra to London.

Before she leaves the college, though, the Master takes Lyra aside and gives her an alethiometer (a truth teller, shaped a bit like a compass) and tells her to keep it safely hidden from Mrs. Coulter. And then off she goes, into the glitzy world of London. Soon, though, the shine wears off and Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is actually in charge of the Gobblers and therefore the disappearance of all the children. Lyra, being rather headstrong and also afraid, runs away.

There is too much in this story to summarize with any kind of brevity, but Lyra ends up heading North with a boatload of gyptians (who live on river boats in England) to find the missing children and (from Lyra's side) rescure Lord Asriel, who is imprisoned in the land of the armoured bears. She has figured out how to read the alethiometer, which means she can ask it questions and get honest answers, which proves invaluable on the voyage. After several twists and turns - which involves saving an armoured bear from captivity - Lyra gets to the Gobblers' station and discovers what they're doing. At the order of the Magesterium (the church), children are having their daemons cut from them. Most children die from this procedure.

In the world of the novel, it's a completely barbaric procedure. In theory, it's done to protect the children from Dust, which attaches itself to adults but not pre-pubescent children. The church sees Dust as original sin, and if children can be protected from it, they need never grow up. Cutting the daemons from these children is kind of like castration, only worse.

There is a great side-narrative in Svalbard, wherein Lyra returns Iorek Byrnison (the armoured bear) to his rightful place as king of the bears. But it's so intricately written that it would take me ages to pull it apart. However, once in Svalbard, Lyra hurries to find Lord Asriel - who she has learned is actually her father, with the evil Mrs. Coulter being her mother - and then discovers that the man she idolized may not be as good as she thought. He's as concerned about Dust as Mrs. Coulter, but instead of simply "protecting" children from it, he wants to destroy it at its source, to the complete dismay of Lyra.

This is the first novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy, so it ends with a suitable cliffhanger to encourage readers to pick up the next book in the series.

When it was originally published, and then again when it was made into a truly awful movie, The Golden Compass created a huge amount of controversy. It is pretty anti-organized religion, and especially the church's way of making unilateral decisions. But in that way, the novel seems to be more against the kind of power we allow our authorities to wield, because in the story, the church is both religion and, essentially, the ruling power.

It isn't a preachy book, though. Rather, it's an adventure story in the tradition of great adventure. Sure there's a moralistic tint (although, not in the usual way, since this is against the usual bearers of morals) and a large, complex enemy, but there's also fantastic characters and well-developed sub-plots. It isn't a difficult read, but it's enjoyable and rewarding nonetheless.

The Golden Compass may be set, for the most part, in the Arctic, but it has all the best ingredients of a summer read. It's fast-paced, absorbing and intelligent. And when you're finished it, Pullman has already provided you with two more books to follow up with.

The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman
First published in 1995 (cover image shown from Yearling edition)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mister Pip

When I decided to start a book blog, I wanted to write about the books that worm their way into your everyday life. Of all the books I've read, Lloyd Jones novel Mister Pip might demonstrate that side of literature – the side that is all-encompassing, that draws you in and makes you feel like you know the characters as if you are a part of their world as much they've become a part of yours – better than anything I've ever read.

Mister Pip is set on a small island in the South Pacific in the early '90s. The island, which used to be home to a major mining operation, has fallen into a kind of civil war, with the "red skins" (an army from an undisclosed country) fighting the rebels. Jones focuses his story on one village on the island, which sounds pretty primitive in terms of its amenities (a collection of houses and a school building) but has enough to keep the residents happy.

When the story opens, the school has just been closed. Our narrator, Matilda (about 11 at the beginning of the story) is not lamenting this fact. In fact, she enjoys the freedom. So when her mum tells her that Mr. Watts - also known to the villagers as Pop Eye - the only white man in the town, is going to start teaching, she isn't sure what to expect. Mr. Watts isn't particularly qualified to be a teacher, so rather than try to give them lessons in math and science, he reads them Charles' Dickens Great Expectations. Because the story takes place in a world that the children have never experienced, Mr. Watts teaches them how to use their imagination. He asks them to close their eyes and say their name, just in their head. No one else can say your name like that, he tells them, explaining that Dickens (Mr. Dickens to all concerned here) did that until he could find Pip's voice and that they can do that to see England.

Mr. Watts doles out the novel one chapter each day. To fill in lesson time, he invites the mothers and grandmothers of the students to come in and tell them about things they know. One woman comes in to talk to the children about the colour blue; another recites recipes; Matilda's mother, who does not approve of Great Expectations, nor her daughter's infatuation with Pip, is a frequent visitor to the class. Dolores and Matilda have a strained relationship, and Dolores blames Mr. Watts for that. Matilda would rather hear about Pip than Jesus, and Dolores is a religious woman who resents Mr. Watts influence over her daughter.

After Mr. Watts reads the book to the class once, he goes back to the beginning and reads it to them again. The class reads it all the way through more than three times before disaster strikes.

The red skin army descend on the village. They make everyone line up and give their names. At first, they seem not so bad. But then a soldier discovers Matilda's shrine to Pip on the beach. Who is Pip, the army commander demands. Where are you hiding Pip? The children explain that Pip belongs to Mr. Dickens and Mr. Watts (who the army now think is Mr. Dickens) explains that Pip is a character in a book. But when Matilda runs to the school building to retrieve the book and clear up the confusion, it isn't there. So, in retaliation, the army ransacks all the homes in the village and burn everyone's possessions. Then they leave, saying they will be back and Pip had better be there.

In the meantime, Mr. Watts tries to keep moral up among the students. He tells them that if they can't read the book, they will have to recreate it through memory. He charges the children that they are responsible for making sure Dickens' masterpiece isn't forgotten. Of course, when the army returns, there is no Pip. So the army burns down their homes. And, without giving everything away, things go from bad to worse for the villagers.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mister Pip is how Jones puts you in exactly the same place as the villagers. Like them, and especially like Matilda and the other children, you know the situation on the island isn't good, but you have no concept of how bad it is. Like the children, you are shielded from reality by their fixation on Great Expectations. As the book moves farther and farther from their lives, your view on the violence occurring around them broadens. I don't want to give everything away, but the last 50 or so pages are shocking.

I thought I was reading Mister Pip because I needed a lighter book. I was wrong. Jones' story is incredibly compelling and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. The characters are wonderfully described and as a storyteller, Jones has serious guts. He isn't afraid to tell a story that might not be comfortable, but is nonetheless stunning. And, if you ever needed to be reminded of the power of literature, this book will do that for you.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Orange You Glad?

Congratulations to Barbara Kingsolver, who won this year's Orange Prize for fiction for her novel The Lacuna. The award goes to the best work of fiction written in English in a given year and, along with the increased sales these awards tend to generate, the winning author receives a cheque for £30,000.

The other nominees were:
Wolf Hall by English writer Hilary Mantel
The Very Thought of You by English writer Rosie Alison
Black Water Rising by American writer Attica Locke
A Gate at the Stairs by American writer Lorrie Moore
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by English/Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey
Canadian author Anne Michaels won the Youth Panel Award - a special award this year that gave youth the opportunity to pick their favourite winner from the past 14 years - for her 1997 Orange Prize winner, Fugitive Pieces. The Orange Prize for New Writers went to Zimbawean author Irene Sabatini for The Boy Next Door.

Really, it's kind of an embarrassment of riches awards-wise.

I haven't read The Lacuna yet, but I loved Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible and will have to put it on my Christmas list (goodness knows I have more than enough books to read until then).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, Scout

That's right, this is the season of Jean Louise 'Scout' Finch's 50th birthday. Of course, because it's the anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, it's also the 50th birthday of all the novel's characters, including Atticus Finch, Jem, Dill, Boo Radley, Calpurnia and the Ewells, just to name a few.

In some ways, it's hard to believe that Harper Lee's classic has been around for half a century. In a lot of other ways, it's hard to believe that its only 50 years old. I've written about To Kill a Mockingbird before, so I won't go into the plot points again. It is one of my most-read books though. I can't remember how old I was the first time I read it, but I think it must have been either grade 5 or grade 6. By the time I was reading it under my desk (instead of paying attention in class) in grade 8, my copy was already well-worn. When we studied it in class the following year, I was the only one in the room who had already read it.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most challenged books in North America, and I would like to think that celebrating its 50th anniversary - and recognizing why it has remained a relevant story for so long - will change that. It won't, I'm sure, and the thought of kids growing up without the novel makes me very sad indeed. That being said, I had been reading it for years before I ever studied it in class, so perhaps I needn't worry.

Happy Birthday To Kill a Mockingbird, you wear your age well.

Image shown the cover image of the Lippincott edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Griffin Winners Announced

The Griffin Poetry Prize winners were announced tonight at, what I hear, was a very swanky do in Toronto. As I mentioned before, the prize money went way up this year, which means the winners did better than ever and all the nominated poets came away with something (besides, of course, the honour of being short-listed).

Without further ado, the winners:
Karen Solie won the Canadian prize for her collection Pigeon (House of Anansi Press)
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin won the International prize for her collection The Sun-fish (The Gallery Press)
Congratulations to both winners and to all the nominated poets, who were:
For the International Prize:
Grain by John Glenday (Picador)
A Village Life by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Cold Spring in Winter by Valérie Rouzeau and translated by Susan Wicks (Arc Publications)
For the Canadian Prize:
The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall (Coach House Books)
Coal and Roses by P.K. Page (The Porcupine's Quill)
Image shown the cover of Karen Solie's Griffin Award-winning Pigeon.

The Boy in the Moon

It took me a while to finally read The Boy in the Moon. Three years ago, when Ian Brown wrote his Globe and Mail series about his son Walker - articles that provided the genesis for the book - I remember thinking that it was a pretty heavy subject. And I wasn't wrong about that, but the way Brown treats it is beautifully soft.

The full title is The Boy in the Moon: a father's search for his disabled son and that really captures what Brown is doing. His original articles, Brown wrote about his relationship with Walker. He described their routines, how they interact, their language of "click" and what it means to be the father of a disabled child. Brown also explores the decision he and and his wife made to get help raising Walker. After years with a stellar nanny, Brown and his wife Johanna decided to find another home for their son.

When I first heard that Brown was writing a book about Walker, I wasn't really sure how he was going to move beyond the articles he'd written, which were lengthy and intricate. But in the newspaper series, Brown had to section up his story so that each piece in the series was complete in itself (for the casual reader). In the book, though, Brown was able to interweave the elements more. He could reveal more slowly the symptoms and realities of Walker's disability - the unbelievably rare CFC - and describe the many different ways they affected their life. And when it came to discussing the deeply fraught decision to find a home for Walker - and all the politics that involved - Brown gave himself the space to really discuss what it means to give your child to other people to raise, and to look at who those people were and how their influence benefitted Walker.

I said once, after reading the first story in the Globe series, that the articles seemed like Brown's plea for some understanding of the decision he and Johanna had to make. It was as if he desperately needed to explain to people that they weren't bad parents, and that Walker wasn't a bad son, but that they both needed help. In The Boy in the Moon Brown is still doing that, in a way, but he also seems to have come to terms with the decision and appreciate that Walker is finding his own community and place in the world. It's a realization that must come to every parent when their child leaves home: you've done all you can, and although you'll still be present in their life (Walker comes home regularly), it's time to let someone else take the reins.

Brown can speak to Walker, but Walker can't speak back (except in "click"); Brown can extrapolate, from a look on his son's face, that Walker is happy or sad or angry, but he has no way of knowing for sure. To be a father of a severely disabled child is to live in a grey area, with brief punches of colour, and Brown's treatment of the their father-son relationship is incredibly tender. He has aspirations for Walker - some realistic, some less so - and his efforts to discover Walker's "inner life" have not gone to waste. Medically, Walker may not have developed very far mentally, but Brown knows (as does the reader) that Walker's life has value not just because he makes you see things about yourself, but because their is purpose in the way he walks around, or hits himself, or laughs at a wake of destruction he's caused.

Brown spends his memoir ostensibly searching for who and what his son is, but in the end (as with all such searches) the search is more for himself than for Walker - it's a search for the meaning of fatherhood. And, if Brown rereads his book, he'll discover the meaning is there, in all the details of his life with Walker.

The Boy in the Moon: a father's search for his disabled son
by Ian Brown
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Random House Canada edition)

See also:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Trillium Award Nominees

The 2010 Trillium Book Award nominees were announced today. The Award was created in 1987 to "recognize excellence, support marketing and foster increased public awareness of the quality and diversity of Ontario writers and writing." The Award recognizes authors writing fiction, non-fiction and poetry in both French and English.

English Finalists for the Trillium Book Award/Prix Trillium

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart)

The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown (Random House Canada)

Animal by Alexandra Leggat (Anvil Press)

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels (McClelland & Stewart)

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro (McClelland & Stewart)

Heaven is Small by Emily Schultz (House of Anansi Press)

Lemon by Cordelia Strube (Coach House Books)

French Finalists for the Trillium Book Award/Prix Trillium are:

Deux cercles by Ryad Assani-Razaki (VLB éditeur)

Pointe Maligne. L’infiniment oubliée by Nicole Champeau (Les Éditions du Vermillon)

Frères ennemis by Jean Mohsen Fahmy (VLB éditeur)

René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin (Les Éditions du Boréal)

La Maison : une parabole by Daniel Soha (Éditions du GREF)

English Finalists for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry are:

Joy is so Exhausting by Susan Holbrook (Coach House Books)

Pigeon by Karen Solie (House of Anansi Press)

The Hayflick Limit by Matthew Tierney (Coach House Books)

French Finalists for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry are:

Le chant du coucou by Jacqueline Borowick (Inanna Publications & Education Inc.)

Passerelles by Michèle Matteau (Les Éditions L’Interligne)

The winners of the Trillium awards will be announced in Toronto on June 24, so stay tuned.

Bookshelf Appreciation

For the first time in my life, I am living without a bookshelf. Not by choice, I might add. Rather, my otherwise-lovely summer sublet is missing this one, key piece of furniture. I did at least bring bookends with me, so I have some books nicely lined up on my desk (a bunch of to-reads which I can switch out over the course of the summer, I suppose), but the majority of the books I brought are living in a large reusable grocery bag.

I have always loved well-stocked bookshelves, but now that I don't have one of my own, I find my heart is all of a flutter whenever I see one. So, blogs such as Bookshelf Porn are ridiculously tantalizing. Add to that the fact that this summer seems to be the season of library bookshelves on design blogs, and well, my feeling of bookshelf inadequacy is just increasing.

My love of the home library probably stems from childhood. My great aunt had a library room in her house and both my parents and grandparents have always been big supporters of lusciously filled bookshelves. And, when you consider that Beauty and the Beast is my favourite Disney movie, I suppose it's no wonder I love a good home library, and dream of one day having my own.

Image shown is a photo of my make-shift book arrangement.
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