Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011

I realize this may seem like a cop-out (especially after I took last week off for the holidays), but rather than post a recommendation today I offer you my top 5 books of 2011, plus a few I read this year that were published earlier. There are lots of year-end lists going up right now, and my usual year in review post will go up on New Year's Day (or thereabouts) as it always does. 

I thought about doing this last week as a last-minute gift guide, but decided instead to wait so it could be a list of books to enjoy in the New Year rather than a stress-inducing buybuybuy reminder. Anyway, here are my Top-5 books that came out in 2011 (please bear in mind that I have not read all the big books of the year yet – my to-read pile is not empty) – links go to the full review, in case you missed it the first time around.

1. The Sister's Brothers by Patrick deWitt (House of Anansi Press)
What can I say about this book that I didn't already say? When I read it, I had no idea I was going to enjoy it so much. Cowboys? I thought, I'm not sure about this. Then of course I realized it wasn't really about cowboys, but instead a vision of the Old West that is just as wild and funny and violent as I could ever have wished, told through a voice so distinct I can still hear Eli Sisters rattling around in my head complaining about his horse. If you have been avoiding this book because of the hype, I suggest you let it cool off and pick it up in February or something – it is really and truly not to be missed.

2. The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (McClelland & Stewart)
In the interest of fair warning, if you're in a relationship beware the power of Enright's writing. I'm not saying this book will make you cheat, but the Gina's voice is so consuming I'll admit it stressed me out a lot. Written as a kind of confessional about an affair, The Forgotten Waltz is a love story that picks apart relationships and love and feels very much like a conversation with an over-analyzing (but perhaps not very self-aware) good friend. It's honest, beautiful, and deeply moving, and even though it made me think all kinds of crazy things, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

3. Various Positions by Martha Schabas (Doubleday)
A lot of people seem to search "ballet sex" on Google, and a number of those people have found my blog (and my review of this book, specifically) with that search term. They don't usually stick around. Various Positions was one of the most surprising books of the year for me, because Schabas' treatment of physicality, femininity, control, and sexuality – all explored through ballet and the life of 14-year-old Georgia – were so stunning that I found myself captivated by the beauty of the writing and the darkly original story it told.

4. Midsummer Night at the Workhouse by Diana Athill (House of Anansi Press)
I love short stories, and this collection of Diana Athill's early stories felt like one of my great discoveries this year (I can't really take credit for it though, since it was sent as a review copy). This collection is mostly stories about women in their 20s, feeling their way into an adult life. The stories are all set in the 1950s and maybe the early 60s (as far as I can tell), but nonetheless resonate because of their humour, language, and incredibly distinct voices. I loved this book, and already its stories are on my re-read list.

5. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (Random House)
I love a layered narrative, where stories fold into other stories getting put down and picked up as the larger plot progreses, and The Tiger's Wife is perhaps the best example of that I read all year. It's sad, beautiful, and filled with the kind of wonder that comes from hearing about the life of someone older than you. After the death of her grandfather, Natalia returns to the mythology he offered about his life as a way to deal with her grief and attempt to understand him better – the result is one of the rare books you hope will never end, but manages to leave you gracefully when it inevitably must.

I would also recommend The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott and Blue Nights by Joan Didion. 

I also read lots of books that weren't new releases, so here were some of my favourites (not all of which I wrote about):

1. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock
2. Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant
3. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (I actually managed to read all the books so-far released in this series in the last year – they were excellent)
4. Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner
5. Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall

Thursday, December 15, 2011

No Great Mischief

I wrote the other day about all the books I hadn't read. Some books, like the classics, I'm actively aware of not having read: I know their general stories, but have not yet picked them up to see what they're all about for myself. Other books, though, I have no idea I haven't read because I just didn't know about them. Although this means I'm probably missing out on a great many incredible books, it also means that I get the wonderful surprise of coming across them with no expectations or preconceived plot ideas, allowing me to enjoy an old book as though it were brand new. How I managed to so completely miss No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod I don't know, but I'm certainly glad it caught up with me eventually.

No Great Mischief is, on the surface, the story of the narrator, Alexander MacDonald (one of many in his family), a man who, as a boy, was so accustomed to being called 'ille bhig ruaidh (Gaelic for little red-haired boy) that he did know know his own name. That tendency to name-as-description seems to have followed him, because it's hard to think of him as anyone but "the narrator" – practically nameless. Anyhow, as the novel opens, he is driving to Toronto to find his brother, an alcoholic living in the kind of seedy, dirty rooms that men with no money and few standards find to rent until their money runs out. When he arrives, he finds his brother shaking without a drink and hand him the bottle of brandy he's brought for just such an event. After calming his brother's tremors, he sets out to the LCBO for something that will last a little longer. Before the question of why he would facilitate his brother's alcoholism even blooms in your mind, though, he begins to tell you about his family, the Clann Chalum Ruaidh.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Unread

In the last few weeks, newspapers and magazines have been unrolling their "best of the year" book lists, and I am once again realizing that I have only managed to read a handful of them. Certainly I've read about many of the books, and I've read some of them, but every trip to a bookstore reminds me of all the books I've been wanting to read and have not yet gotten to. For new releases, I don't feel too bad, but when I spot a book on a shelf (such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot) that I've been meaning to read since before this time last year, I start to feel a pang of guilt. Were there books I read this year that I should have put aside in favour of these other books I've been looking forward to? (The answer is definitely yes, but when reading is part of your job, you sometimes read books you otherwise would not.)

I've saved 1Q84, Haruki Murakami's latest, for the holidays, but it's so big (and the holidays so inevitably full of non-reading activities) that I probably won't get through the other books I had planned to read. 

Over at the National Post, this trouble of The Unread has become an on-going series, started by books editor Mark Medley coming clean about some of the classics (traditional and modern) that he has not yet read. Certainly, I've read many classics. I've read The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, all the Anne of Green Gables books, 1984 and Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, among many others. But, like Mark, I have not read Moby-Dick or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series (despite having all three volumes on my shelf and having read Stieg Larsson's widow's book). I also bought the first Hunger Games book in the spring and have yet to crack the cover. Until last year, I hadn't read any of Margaret Atwood's novels (I've since read three); I still haven't read Watership Down or Brave New World, and I managed to get an English degree without reading any T.S. Eliot, Jane Austen, or myriad other big and influential authors. Despite having bought a book of Chekov short stories almost eight months ago now, I still have not read any of the Russians. And, although these are all books and authors I'd like to get to, there are a bunch of recent releases I'd also like to read.

For some reason, it seems easier to put off reading classics. Likely, it has something to do with the sense that they've always been around, so it won't hurt to wait a little, whereas new releases sometimes feel so of the moment, waiting seems impossible. Partly too, many of the classic stories are so classic I feel I know them already. Of course, knowing the story of Wuthering Heights isn't the same as immersing yourself in the language and drama of the novel, but nonetheless, there is less urgency there.

 Miraculously, I managed to read all five of the books I set out to read this year, so perhaps next year I'll  as a classic to the list and see if that helps. In the meantime, what are the unread books that weigh most heavily on you? Will you try to read one over the holidays?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Blue Nights

Through no kind of strategy or planning, it seems I have read more memoirs and biographies in the last month or so than in the rest of the year combined. I could probably dig into this and find some sort of psychological reason (you can always find one if you look), but I would prefer to chalk it up to my to-read pile having its own logical sieve (the tiger posts, for example). Including one book that I have not yet written about, in the last month I have had the great privilege to spend time with some extraordinarily different women – first, Mrs. Delany and Molly Peacock in The Paper Garden, then writer Therese Kishkan in her memoir Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, and capping it all off, Joan Didion in Blue Nights, her follow-up to The Year of Magical Thinking.

Where The Year of Magical Thinking focused on the death of Didion's husband John Gregory Dunne and the devastating illness of their adult daughter Quintana Roo. Shortly before that book was published, Quintana died. Blue Nights is Didion's lyrical attempt to deal with her daughter's death – and to some degree her life – and also with her own mortality and aging in the face of her family's death. If readers found Didion cold or clinical in A Year of Magical Thinking, mere pages into Blue Nights you can tell that this is a different Didion: her defences are down, her own fragility is realized, and her world is filled with memories of the people she thought she would have forever. To say this book is devastating does not come close to grasping its emotional impact, but it also implies that there are no moments of joy, which would be unfair.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On book blogging

A few days ago, Rebecca Schinsky (an American book blogger and very activer Twitterer) tweeted about a letter she and other book bloggers received from HarperCollins U.S. imprint William Morrow that stated a change in their policy regarding review copies. Essentially, the letter (as discussed in the L.A. Times and The Guardian) laid down the law: no more unsolicited review copies; reviews are expected to be written and posted in a timely manner (within weeks of publication); and if bloggers won't play by these rules, no more review copies. But! William Morrow loves book bloggers, the letter assures recipients. So no worries.

Certainly, this letter may not have been worded to the greatest affect, and it seems William Morrow was taken aback by the angry response the missive received and has since tried to explain that the change in policy isn't meant to be punitive. Be that as it may, the wider response has been interesting. On the one side, bloggers are angry at being treated like free marketing labour – most don't get paid and look at free books as a way to help justify a sometimes very time-consuming endeavour; on the other side are those who see this letter and its response as further evidence of the entitlement of the blogosphere – hacks who think they're real journalists and should be treated accordingly. It's messy and ugly, and I'm not sure either side has it right, but rather than wade into the wider debate, I'll simply explain how it all works here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Tiger's Wife

I mentioned last week in my post about John Vaillant's The Tiger that every so often this (assumably) unintentional trends arise in literature, and that last year's was exotic animals, and especially tigers. Although I didn't read any of the tiger books when they were first out, I still managed to read two back to back almost a year later. You would think this would be tiger overload (I would have thought that if I'd planned things better), but instead it turned out that reading the detailed nonfiction account first meant I entered the The Tiger's Wife with a wealth of knowledge (both on a practical, biological level and on the folk tale, mythology level) that allowed me to sink in to Téa Obreht's novel with a kind of backstory already in place.

The Tiger's Wife is set in an unnamed Balkan country in the years after the war. People are still adjusting to the new countries and the new borders that accompany them. The novel is not really about that, though, so much as that is the condition of life for the characters. The novel opens with a memory: a little girl is taken by her grandfather to the zoo, where they sit and watch the tiger roam the moat (the zoo is in an old citadel). The little girl is Natalia, who in the present day of the novel is a young doctor driving to a much poorer, neighbouring country with her best friend (also a doctor) to administer vaccines to children in an orphanage run by a priest. She is driving to the orphanage when she finds out her grandfather (who was also a doctor) has died in some out of the way town, and that his belongings were not returned with his body. Her grandfather, Natalia is quite sure, was going to find the deathless man; her grandmother insists he was on his way to help her with the orphanage. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Tiger

Given how long the process of writing, editing, and publishing a book is, it always surprises me when anything approaching a trend crops up. Certainly, trends like The Year of the Short Story are a little manufactured (not that that makes them bad), but what I'm talking about are books that come out with similar themes or central figures. Last year, for example, it seemed tigers (and other jungle animals) were the big thing. Strangely, at the time I didn't read any of the tiger books that came out, but in the space of three weeks recently read both the big ones pretty much back-to-back. I didn't plan it that way, but as it turned out I think I read them in the right order (if such a thing exists), and will therefore write about them in the same way. Up first, John Vaillant's non-fiction award-winner The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

I loved Vaillant's previous non-fiction book The Golden Spruce, so when The Tiger came out I was really excited to read it. The hardcover edition was, while beautiful, also enormous, so I ended up waiting for the softcover version, which offered the dual benefit of being much easier to carry around and also post-hype. The Tiger is set up as the story of a man-eating Siberian tiger and the men tasked with hunting and killing it. But, much like in The Golden Spruce, Vaillant uses that narrative arc to weave in a million smaller, farther-reaching details about Siberia, Russia, tigers, hunting and a number of things you didn't even realize you were interested in. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

I have mixed feelings about books in a series. When I was a kid, I loved them: Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, and, later, Emily of New Moon – I read an reread those books because I loved getting to know the characters over the arc of their life and experiencing their different ages and phases as I grew up. For similar reasons, I loved Harry Potter. Mystery series, though, can be something quite different. Either you have a number of different cases written entirely independently of one another, so it doesn't matter what order you read them in because there's no over-arching character development, or you have ones that string you along – a detective haunted by a killer who got away, his or her paranoi growing with each book as glimpses of the bad guy come and go. For me, the former usually becomes unrewarding and I typically end up resenting the latter. What's a reader to do? Well, for now anyway, read Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce books – the third of which is A Red Herring Without Mustard – which combine just enough of the two basic kinds of mystery series with a dash of the series I loved as a kid.

A Red Herring Without Mustard opens with a scene at the church fair. Eleven-year-old Flavia is having her palm read by a Gypsy fortune teller when the woman gives her a fortune that sounds very much like the story of how Flavia's mother Harriet died. In shock, Flavia stumbles out, knocking over a candle and sending the entire tent up in flames. Naturally, Flavia feels awful; she invites the Gypsy, to camp on part of the Buckshaw grounds know as the Palings, in the bend of the river. Harriet, it seems, once invited them to stay there as well, because the Gypsy woman is familiar with the area and, when the red-headed and rough Mrs. Bull yells at them on the way by, accusing the Gypsy of stealing her baby, it's clear she's been that way before. But Flavia doesn't have much time to ask her questions, because the older woman is sick and needs to be left in peace. In the middle of the night, though, Flavia wakes up and can't get back to sleep, so she decides to go and check on the Gypsy – she finds her bludgeoned nearly to death inside her caravan.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Giller Prize + Q Debate

I know I said I was going to be more on the ball, but I'm still a week late on this. So, without any preamble, congratulations to Esi Edugyan, who won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen Publishers). She, like Patrick deWitt, was nominated for all the big awards this year and I am delighted to see she (also like deWitt) has won at least one of them. Too often we see authors nominated for at least the Canadian big-three and then not win any of them (last year it was Kathleen Winter, previously it was Annabel Lyon, etc.). 

But that isn't what I really want to talk about here. Last week, after the Giller was handed out, Jian Ghomeshi, host of the CBC radio show Q, host a "Q Debate" about whether Canadian literature was too international in scope, and if so, if that means we're missing out on some quintessentially Canadian stories. He held up both Edugyan (whose novel is set in the U.S. and Berlin) and deWitt (whose novel is set in on the American west coast during the California gold rush) as examples of Canadian writers being praised for novels set outside of Canada. Because it was Giller week, attention was also paid to David Bezmozgis, whose novel The Free World is set mostly in Rome, and Michael Ondaatje, whose novel The Cat's Table was mostly set on a ship steaming from Sri Lanka and England. Of the six books on the this year's Giller shortlist, only two were set in Canada: Lynn Coady's The Antagonist and Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives.

So, what does that say about the state of Canadian writing? Are we ignoring "Canadian stories" in favour of exotic, cosmopolitan ones? Personally, I say no. Of course, I can't know what these authors are thinking when they come up with an idea and set out to write it, but when the results are as well crafted and interesting as these six books, I'm not worried about it (just for comparison, last year's shortlist was made up of almost exclusively Canada-specific books).  I would far rather have a Canadian author (or an author who identifies as such because of birth or immigration) write about something that they find compelling than feel boxed in by the notion that to win an award they must confine their writing to something Canadian. Of course, the other side of the argument is that there is nothing confining about Canadian stories because the country is vast and the population is diverse; certainly, there are an infinite number of stories to be told. However, if what you want to write about is related to the jazz scene in Berlin under Nazi Germany, being told to stick to Montreal would feel confining. 

It's tricky though, because I love reading stories set in the places I know. Seeing Toronto or Montreal or Nova Scotia or wherever pop up in a novel is exciting in strange way because I'm so used to reading about elsewhere. If I thought that books set in Canadian locales were truly becoming endangered, I'd be up in arms. But I don't think they are, so I'm not. Canadians have a lot of interesting stories to tell, and if they're set in diverse places, so much the better, I say.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Paper Garden

The whole reason I started this blog was to put all my book recommendations in one place. Some books are more specific in their recommendation than others, but generally speaking, they're all books I enjoyed and would eagerly pass along to a friend. That being said, every once in a while I find a book that is so good I can't stop talking about it, and spend time actively thinking about who in my life would also enjoy it, and how their reading of it might differ from mine. It's fair to say I don't have that level of engagement with every book, so when I start matchmaking before I'm halfway through I know I've got a good one. Most recently, that book was The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Moll Peacock.

When I really love a book, I tend to get a little effusive and then stumble all over myself, so I will try to keep this orderly. Anyway, the Mrs. Delany of the subtitle is Mrs. Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, born in 1700, and this book is, ostensibly, the story of her incredible artistic achievement. At 72, Mrs. Delany (Mrs. D, as Peacock calls her) looked at a fallen geranium petal and noticed that it matched a piece of coloured paper. From there, she decided to recreate the geranium out of pieces of cut paper (remember that she's 72 and there's no electricity), and the result was so exquisite that her friend initially thought Mrs. Delany had ripped apart the geranium and glued it, piece by piece, onto a sheet of paper. Mrs. Delany then went on to make 985 of these "flower mosaiks" using hand-cut paper, rudimentary glue, and paper she often coloured herself. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse

At the beginning of October, as part of the New Yorker Festival, a friend and I saw a panel about 'the writer's writer,' which involved authors Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, and Jeffrey Eugenides discuss what they thought the term meant and offer up some examples of who they thought of as a writer's writer. They all had a lot to say, but for me the standout insight came from Lahiri, when she said talked about writing that first work. You don't realize what it is, she said (I'm paraphrasing, of course), so you're only writing it for yourself and that gives the work this kind of pure energy and purpose and delight that can get lost after success and pressure for your next book invade your writing space. For Lahiri, a writer's writer is someone who, book after book, can recapture the innocence of purpose of writing their first book. I thought about that idea of innocence and purity a lot as I read Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, a new collection of Diana Athill's earliest stories.

Athill, now in her nineties, is one of those legendary British editors – she's worked with Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others – and, an accomplished novelist and memoirist in her own right. But, as she writes in the preface to this new edition of her short stories, she never planned to be a writer. Then, one day while she was out for a walk with her dog, a man flirted with her shamelessly and it reminded her of another many she once knew, and she decided to write a story about him. From there, she says, the ideas started flowing; many of them were based on personal experiences until all of a sudden she'd think of something else and the story would become fiction. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

So many award-winners: Writers' Trust and a very belated Man Booker

It seems I'm much better at posting shortlists than I am at keeping up with who wins what (or at list posting the winners), but three big awards nights have already passed and with the Giller and the GGs coming up, it's high time I recapped. I could probably pretend that I was planning to do all the Writers' Trust winners in one list (despite the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Nonfiction Prize being handed out in a separate gala last week), but that wouldn't be fair. It did work out nicely though.

Anyway, here are the various Writers' Trust winners:
Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Nonfiction Prize: Charles Foran for Mordecai: The Life and Times (Incidentally, I did a whole series of posts on this award for the Toronto Review of Books, if you're interested in reading up on the other finalists as well)
Writers' Trust Fiction Prize: Patrick deWitt for The Sisters Brothers (He's 1-1 so far, but with two more awards yet to come we'll have to see how he does)
Writers' Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize: Mirand Hill for her short story "Petitions to Saint Chronic," published in the Dalhousie Review
Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award (for a writer in mid-career): Wayne Johnston, from Newfoundland, author Navigator of New York, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, and World Elsewhere, among other titles
Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life: David Adams Richards, author of Giller co-winner Mercy Among the Children, among other titles
Vicky Metcalf Award for Children's Literature: Iain Lawrence, author of Gemini Summer, among other titles
Writers' Trust Award for Distinguished Contribution: Alma Lee, founding Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, the founding Executive Director of The Writers’ Trust, and founder of the Vancouver International Writers Festival

And, two weeks late, but nonetheless still noteworthy, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for his novel Sense of an Ending.

Phew. I will certainly try to keep these more up-to-date as the season roles on.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Virgin Cure

Probably the biggest perk of writing a blog is that I can get books directly from the publisher. I don't make any money, but receiving review copies is certainly saves me some. It also means that I often get to read books before they're available in stores. Typically, I try to arrange my reading so that I finish a book just before it comes out, which allows me to blog about it shortly thereafter (I don't like to recommend books that aren't available in stores or the library, for obvious reasons). Anyway, every once in a while I mess up and read a great book weeks before I can write about it and then have to sit on it. Most recently, that was the case with Ami McKay's The Virgin Cure, the follow-up (but not sequel) to her 2007 novel The Birth House.

The Virgin Cure is set in the tenements of lower Manhattan (mostly in and around the Bowery) in 1871, and the title refers to the vile belief that a man could cure himself of venereal disease (especially syphilis) by having sex with a virgin (I should note that this belief continues in parts of the world, although McKay confines her story to a very specific time and place). Anyway, the story centers around Moth, a 12-year-old girl growing up in the Bowery. Her mother is a Gypsy fortune teller and her father ran off not long after she was born. They are desperately poor and their neighbourhood is rough. At least two girls Moth's age went missing and were found dead in recent memory. As typical of most cities, mere blocks away from the slums of the tenements is a street filled with rich homes, where Moth often walks and imagines a rich future for herself. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Island of Wings

One theory behind why people enjoy spicy food so much  is that the pain of the spices creates a counter-response in your body that sends endorphins flying through your system. In a way, it's like being rewarded for deliberately hurting yourself, so naturally you go back for more. Personally, I never get that rush of endorphins when my mouth is on fire and my eyes are tearing up. Maybe I don't push myself far enough, I'm not sure. Books, though, are another matter. I love a sad story. I don't always enjoy every moment of reading them (sometimes the sorrow is just too acute), but there's something incredible about being allowed to see someone's inner life so clearly that, for the moments you're reading, their despair becomes yours. Obviously, I can't read a lot of these books at a time because it would make me miserable, but I do try to plan things out so that, every once in a while, I get to a sad and lovely story (typically book-ended by happier novels). Most recently, that book was Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg.

The easy set-up of Island of Wings goes like this: in 1830 Reverend Neil McKenzie and his new wife Lizzie move from mainland Scotland to the islands of St. Kilda, in the Hebrides, where Neil becomes the minister to the small and remote community. The islanders, though, only speak Gaelic. This is not a problem for Neil, as Gaelic is his first language, but Lizzie is immediately isolated by her inability to speak to anyone on the island besides her husband, whom she barely knows. She is pregnant when they arrive and that wide open possibility becomes a great source of private joy for her. When Lizzie falls down a hillside though, and loses the baby, it not only causes her to withdraw into herself again, but it etches the first crack in her fragile marriage. 

The island the McKenzie's live on is called Hirta and it's far enough north to not have any trees. It's windswept and remote, and everything about life there is a great shock to Lizzie. She and Neil live in the manse, which was built, along with the tiny church, in preparation for their arrival. The rest of the St. Kildans, though, live just the way their ancestors always had, in stone and earth houses with thatched roofs and no windows. The walls are seven-feet thick and entering means crawling through first through the area where the animals are kept before entering the main room (the beds are hollowed out of the walls). It's primitive and, as seen through the "civilized" eyes of Lizzie and Neil, disgusting. All the families' waste is spread over the floor throughout the year to act as fertilizer in the spring, and the smell, as Altenberg notes on several occasions, is vile. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Finalists for the Governor General's Literary Awards

I'm about a week late on this,  but the Governor General's Literary Award finalists were announced last week. The GGs award prizes for both English- and French-language work in seven categories: fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, children's text, children's illustration, and translation.

Both Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt made the fiction shortlist, which means they're each finalists for Fall's four major literary awards: the Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and now the GG. I still have not read Edugyan's book, but I loved deWitt's and it was probably my most recommended book this summer. Apparently, I was not alone in that. Actually, several of these nominated books have shown up on other longlists and shortlists this season, but it really is nice to see that no two lists are the same.

Here are the English-language finalists (click here for French-language finalists).


  • Charles Foran, Mordecai: The Life and Times (Knopf Canada)
  • Nathan M. Greenfield, The Damned: The Canadians at the Battle of Hong Kong and the POW Experience 1941-45 (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Richard Gwyn, Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times (Random House Canada)
  • J. J. Lee, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Andrew Nikiforuk, The Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America's Great Forests (Greystone Books)

  • Michael Boughn, Cosmographia: A Post-Lucretian Faux Mini-Epic (BookThug)
  • Kate Eichhorn, Fieldnotes, A Forensic (BookThug)
  • Phil Hall, Killdeer (BookThug)
  • Garry Thomas Morse, Discovery Passages (Talonbooks)
  • Susan Musgrave, Origami Dove (McClelland & Stewart)

Thursday, October 13, 2011


It's amazing what an impact a striking cover can have. The first time I saw Alligator by Lisa Moore was shortly after it first came out. It was on a table at a local bookstore and it drew me in. I didn't buy it that day, but I wrote down the title as one to look for and then forgot about it until I read February – seeing the title mentioned in the context of another book I loved brought the cover right back, and I spent the next several months scouring used bookstores for the vivid green book I remembered. As it turns out, I should have just asked amongst my friends, because that ended up being much quicker. Anyway, over five years after first seeing Alligator, I finally read it, and it was well worth the wait.

The book opens with 17-year-old Colleen watching a safety video that features a man who sticks his head into the mouths of living alligators. The video is about attention to detail, and the lesson slams home when it's revealed the alligator man didn't wipe his face, which he usually does, and as a result, the alligator's jaws slam shut while his head is still inside. It's an instructional video made by Colleen's Aunt Madeleine, and it's one she watches over and over again. Madeleine is a filmmaker, and although she used to make instructional videos and the like, she is now embarking on a feature-length project. She has a heart condition, but the film is consuming.

The novel is set in St. John's, and Moore weaves together many different characters to bring various aspects of the city to life. Besides Colleen, Madeleine, and Beverly (Colleen's mother and Madeleine's sister), Moore also gives voice to Frank, a young guy who runs a hot dog stand on Water St. and has a crush on Colleen; Isobel, an actress who has come back from the mainland to work on Madeleine's film; and Valentin, a Russian drug dealer in Canada illegally who also happens to be Frank's upstairs neighbour and involved with Isobel. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, but Moore doesn't try to shuffle book into equal parts; rather, the different storylines ebb and flow depending on their demands.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Little Shadows

As the eldest of three girls, books about sisters are a natural draw for me. I'm always curious about how the relationships between women are portrayed in fiction anyway, but when it comes to sibling relationships I can't help but get pulled in. I'm lucky in that my sisters and I all get along quite well. Certainly we still fight sometimes, but when it comes right down to it, we know we're always going to be there for each other. Not everyone has this kind of relationship, and I try not to take it for granted. Instead, I scour literature for other good examples of sisterhood (in the familial sense) and hold them up for myself. Little Women, is a classic example, but the sisters portrayed in Marina Endicott's new novel The Little Shadows are more dynamic and less overwhelmingly good than Louisa May Alcott's girls, which makes the Avery sisters that much more fun to read about.

The novel begins with the Avery sisters – (oldest to youngest) Aurora, Clover, and Bella – and their mother auditioning for their first show. It's the early 1900s and the girls, who have lost their father and brother, are trying to make it in vaudeville. They're desperately poor and not have very little performing experience, but their mother Flora used to be in vaudeville, so she has trained them up enough to audition. Not that they're having any success with it. They're pretty girls, though, and that combined with their ability to hold a note lands them their first gig, opening the show in Fort MacLeod. Not only does Endicott take us through the sisters' act, though, but she presents the whole vaudeville scene: backstage, on stage, and what happens in the wings and on the stairs. Just like the girls, we see everything with fresh eyes, and those small details you miss when you're a seasoned performer still pop to their attention. After the first night, though, they get taken off the bill.

So begins a novel steeped in vaudeville, the artistic variety shows of the turn of the century. By the time the Avery sisters (who perform as The Belle Auroras) arrive on the scene, though, the style has changed from bawdy to polite, allowing them to sing classic songs about love and loss. After the disappointment in Fort MacLeod, the band leader suggests they head south to Montana where he knows a guy who owes him a favour. Money is tight and the girls don't have much choice, so off they go. Luckily, in Montana they find the theatre is run by Gentry Fox, a man who knew Flora in her vaudeville days. After grumbling, he agrees to take the girls on for free and give them lessons in the mornings. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Giller Prize shortlist

After the longest longlist in the history of the Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced last month, the judges (Annabel Lyon, Howard Norman, and Andrew O'Hagan) had quite the job of narrowing down the 17 titles to six finalists. But, that was their job and they've done it pretty well:

  • David Bezmozgis, The Free World (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Lynn Coady, The Antagonist (House of Anansi Press)
  • Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (House of Anansi Press)
  • Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • Zsuzsi Gartner, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
  • Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table (McClelland & Stewart)

The winner will be announced on Nov. 8, which means you still have time to try and read all five of these titles (if you haven't already). I will admit a certain fondness for The Sisters Brothers, which I absolutely loved, but my record of picking the winner isn't great. Who do you think will win?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Cat's Table

The farthest I've ever traveled by boat was when I took a ferry from Italy to Greece. It was and overnight trip, and we left Italy in the mid-afternoon and arrived in Greece mid-morning the next day. I tend to be nervous on boats (I get seasick), but it was a remarkably smooth ride, and mostly I just couldn't believe how big the ferry was. I'm not sure how many passengers it carried, but it was big. It was actually pretty shocking to realize that it was nowhere near the size of the cruise ships we used to see towering over the buildings in Saint Lucia. How either of these boats compare to the size of the steamers that traveled between Sri Lanka and England in the 1950s, I'm not sure, but it's easy to believe that they would have been big enough to entertain an 11-year-old boy. On the surface, that's what Michael Ondaatje's new novel The Cat's Table is about: a boy on a ship, and everything he gets up to.

It's amazing the way a three-week period can completely alter the course of someone's life. In this case, the journey from Colombo, Sri Lanka, the only home our narrator has ever known, to England, where he will reunite with his mother, takes 21 days. Although he has a "guardian" in first class and discovers his cousin Emily is also on board, Mynah (whose real name is Michael) is mostly on his own. He is seated at the Cat's Table, which is described as the least desirable table in the dining room because it is the furthest from the captain, but it is populated by an assortment of interesting people who add just enough intrigue and adventure to the journey to keep Mynah from becoming too bored. Two of his table-mates are boys his age, and although they're initially shy, soon he and Ramidhin and Cassius are fast friends.

The novel is told in retrospect, so although the story is mostly chronological, it moves around a little because memories don't always connect in a linear way. For example, we meet all the important players in the story fairly quickly, even though in real time it seems that Mynah wouldn't have met certain people, or known details of others' lives until later in the journey. Memory works in a weird way, and The Cat's Table unfolds in a natural way, as though the adult Michael is only now properly considering how his life was affected by those three weeks at sea.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Writers' Trust Fiction Prize finalists

The finalists for the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize were announced in Toronto this morning and, since the Writers' Trust doesn't do longlists, this is the first fiction shortlist of the Can Lit awards season (the Man Booker shortlist came out earlier this month and the Giller shortlist doesn't come out until next week). Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt are on this list – they've been on all of them so far – but strangely, Edugyan is the only female author up for the Writers' Trust's $25,000 fiction prize.

Here's the full list of nominees:
  • Clark Blaise, The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis)
  • Michael Christie, The Beggar's Garden (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (House of Anansi Press)
  • Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • Dan Vyleta, The Quiet Twin (HarperCollins Publishers)

Blaise and Christie are both also on the Giller longlist with DeWitt and Edugyan, but Vyleta has yet to come up on any of the lists so far. That's one thing I love about the Fall books season. Not only do a ton of great titles come out, but all the awards spring up to remind you of books you might have missed previously, or that might have been launched more quietly than some of the buzzier books of the season.

The winner of the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, as well as the winner of the Journey Prize and four other awards for a writer's body of work, will be announced on Nov. 1.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Easy to Like

When I was doing my undergrad there were very few required courses – I didn't have to take statistics, or any math or science course, for example. I did, however, have to select English classes from various literary periods and as a result ended up taking an in-depth class on Restoration literature. That was the high-point of English satire, when authors like Swift and Pope wrote their political critiques and bawdy essays. Although I'm sure people reading the work at the time got all the jokes and allusions, everything was heavily footnoted to ensure modern readers understood why a certain line or turn of phrase was as caustic as it was. But having joke explained to you takes the edge off, which is why modern satire is fun: you don't need footnotes or explanations because the jokes are current and, if you don't get them, you don't notice. Edward Riche's Easy to Like is a great example of this.

The novel starts of with Elliot Jonson (he changed the spelling to be unique in L.A.), a washed-up script writer and wine enthusiast conducting a wine tasting for some trophy wives in California. One of the wines he has chose for them to taste is one of his least favourites. Tasting enjoyable ones, he explains to the confused and drunk women, is a waste of time because it's too easy. Elliot, as it turns out, has his own vineyard but the wine is just not turning out the way he hoped and financially he's sunk. Not that that is enough to keep him from chasing his wine dreams, so he books a flight to France in search of the illusive Matou de Gethsmane grape, which he believes is the missing ingredient.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Finalists for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

I went to a very nice press conference this morning where the finalists for the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction were announced. (To clarify, the Writers' Trust has had a nonfiction prize for years, but this is the first prize under the new name, which came about in May when the Writers' Trust announced Weston was the prize's new sponsor.)

Anyway, there were many President's Choice snacks (Weston's son is Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaws Companies Limited, who is frequently featured in ads for PC products) and, to add to the drama, before each finalist was named, a CBC Radio personality read an excerpt from their book. It was quite nice, I thought, to get a taste of how different each book's style and content are. And they are perhaps the most dynamic group of finalists for a literary award I've seen.
  • Charles Foran for Mordecai: The Life and Times (Knopf Canada), which also won the 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. In his Skype session with Eleanor Wachtel, Foran said he didn’t encounter Mordecai Richler’s work until Grade 10, when he read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a novel that seemed purposefully rough-edged compared to the others on the reading list. 
  • Charlotte Gill for Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation). Gill is a veteran tree-planter who planted over a million trees in 17 seasons. Her short story collection Ladykiller was nominated for the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and won the Danuta Gleed Award in 2006. 
  • Richard Gwyn for Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times (Random House Canada), which is the second volume of Gwyn’s biography of Canada’s first prime minister. The first volume, John A: The Many Who Made Us was published in 2007 and won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. 
  • Grant Lawrence for Adventures in Solitude: What Not to Wear to a Nude Potluck and Other Stories from Desolation Sound (Harbour Publishing), which was also a finalist for the 2011 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. Lawrence is the lead singer in the Vancouver band The Smugglers and hosts several shows on CBC Radio 3. 
  • Ray Robertson for Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live (Biblioasis), is the product of Robertson’s struggle with serious depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He is the author of six other books including, What Happened Later, which was nominated for the Trillium Award in 2008. 
Each finalist receives $5,000 and the eventual winner (who will be announced on Oct. 25) will receive an additional $55,000, which makes this the richest prize in Canadian literature.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Reinvention of Love

I feel like the weather has gotten crisp a lot faster this year than it has in the last few years, so I'm already fully out of my summer reading blitz and firmly entrenched in fall reading. For me, that means books that I can spend time with. I'm stubborn, so even though it's chilly out my windows are still open, and since I get cold quickly I wrap myself up in a blanket to read. Once I'm cocooned, I like to stay that way, so the book I'm sitting with needs to suit the mood created by a cool breeze and a mug of tea. There are lots of books that do the trick, and although I admittedly read Helen Humphreys The Reinvention of Love in August, I think it would be one of them because there's nothing like tragedy to pick up on the nip in fall air.

The Reinvention of Love tells a fictionalized version of the true story of the affair between Adèle Hugo (Victor Hugo's wife) and the author and critic Charles Sainte-Beuve. As many literary affairs are – and this one was certainly literary, even in life – Charles and Adèle's is doomed. Charles is a family friend. Years before the affair began, when Victor Hugo was still new on Paris's literary scene, Charles wrote a favourable review of his poetry and the two became friends. From then on, as Victor became richer and more famous and Charles remained relatively poor, Victor would send Charles his work to review. Charles became a regular guest in the Hugo household and Victor named his second son after him. Then Charles and Adèle began their affair, which was short-lived because in a fit of guilt, Charles, assuming Victor already suspected, confessed the whole thing. Of course, Victor had no idea, and despite his stated desire to remain friends with Charles, that relationship fizzled quickly.

At least, that's how Humphreys tells it. I am not a scholar of either Charles Sainte-Beuve or Victor Hugo, so I'm not entirely sure what is true and what is fiction filling in gaps, but it certainly reads with a kind of straight realism that gives the historical setting a familiar and vivid feel. The novel is written mostly from Charles' perspective, although there are sections written from Adèle's point of view, as well as later ones that come from Adèle's youngest daughter, Dédé, as well.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Helen Humphreys on why she chose to reconstruct a historical footnote

I had a piece in the National Post's Saturday Books section about Helen Humphreys and her hew novel The Reinvention of Love. I plan to write about the book here sometime in the next few weeks, but until then, here's a bit of my feature.
When Helen Humphreys stumbled across Charles Sainte-Beuve, it was a complete accident. She was reading something else, and then there he was, mentioned in a passing reference to his affair with Adèle Hugo, wife of Victor Hugo. It wasn’t much, but Humphreys’ interest was piqued and she started to research Sainte-Beuve’s life and his love for Adèle.  
After nearly five years of writing and researching and rewriting, Humphreys’s novel The Reinvention of Love tells the story of Sainte-Beuve and Adèle.  
Unlike Humphreys’ previous novels, which stay in a specific moment, The Reinvention of Love is set over several decades in 19th-century Paris, and recreates not only the affair, but also what came after, allowing it to billow out from France to the Channel Islands and then to Nova Scotia.  
This is not the first book to be written about the affair: In 1834, Sainte-Beuve himself published his autobiographical novel Volupté, and although his novel was written shortly after the affair ended, and all the memories and emotions were still fresh, Humphreys describes Sainte-Beuve as feeling that his time with Adèle was less real after having written about it.  
“When you write about something it becomes a story,” Humphreys says. “When you’re in the midst of your life, in the chaos and the swirl of all of the things that are happening simultaneously, there’s a reality to that experience that is not present when you write about something, because the moment you put something in order, you’ve essentially made it a narrative, fiction. That takes it away from you; that removes it a little bit from yourself.”
Read the rest on The Afterword...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center

When I found out about that the Twin Towers had been hit I was in form 4 (grade 10) English A class at St. Joseph's Convent in Saint Lucia. I was thousands of miles away, and I didn't really understand what my teacher was talking about. Admittedly, I couldn't even picture the World Trade Center. When I got home that day, I watched the planes hit and the smoke unfurl and the towers collapse over and over again. It was so beyond what I thought was possible that I couldn't process it. At that moment, on the little Caribbean island we were living on, I had no real idea of what it meant. Fast forward a decade and all of that sounds naive – 9/11 changed everything, and when we moved back to Canada a year after it happened, I started to realize it. The commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11 is coming up, and the media coverage started weeks ago. It seems like an impossible task to quantify what 9/11 meant (and continues to mean), but with New York about to open Ground Zero to the public, understanding how the Twin Towers were taken down seems like an important place to start when looking for renewal.

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center is comprised of the three long articles William Langewiesche wrote for The Atlantic Monthly about his time on "the pile." Langewiesche went to the site of the World Trade Center and within days of the attack managed to get himself unprecedented access to the site and everyone on it. He spent the next several months with the rescue workers, city planners, and unbuilders to document what happened at Ground Zero after the buildings the fell. For the life of me, I cannot begin to imagine how he wrangled all his notes into a book barely more than 200 pages, but if you read one book about 9/11, I would recommend it be this one.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Toronto Book Awards finalists

It seems impossible that three book prize lists were released yesterday, but they were. I posted the Man Booker shortlist and the Giller Prize longlist when they became available, but I just didn't have the energy to wrangle through the Toronto Book Awards too. I'm going to have to get used to this pace, though, since we're barreling head first into book awards season and that means many lists to come.

Anyway, the Toronto Book Awards. These city-specific awards “honour authors of books of literary or artistic merit that are evocative of Toronto.” It's one of the few inter-genre awards (non-fiction doesn't competes with fiction very often), and it's got a nice twist, and both of those attributes help to keep it fresh. So, here the finalists are:
  • James FitzGerald, What Disturbs Our Blood (Random House Canada) – non-fiction
  • James King, Étienne’s Alphabet (Cormorant Books)
  • Rabindranath Maharaj, The Amazing Absorbing Boy (Knopf Canada)
  • Nicholas Ruddock, The Parabolist (Doubleday Canada)
  • Alissa York, Fauna (Random House Canada)
It's a short list, and each of the authors on it will receive $1,000. The winner – to be announced on Oct. 13 – receives an additional $9,000.

here has been a lot of discussion about the value of libraries and reading in Toronto over the last few months, so I'm glad to see the book awards haven't been cancelled.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Giller Prize longlist

Well, Tuesday morning are usually much less eventful. But, this is Sept. 6 and that means not only the Man Booker Prize shortlist, but also the Giller Prize longlist. It's a good day to be a reader, is what I'm saying. So, without further ado, here are the longlisted titles for Canada's largest fiction prize:
  • David Bezmozgis, The Free World (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Clark Blaise, The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis)
  • Michael Christie, The Beggar's Garden (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Lynn Coady, The Antagonist (House of Anansi Press)
  • Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (House of Anansi Press)
  • Myrna Dey, Extensions (NeWest Press) – Readers' Choice Winner
  • Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen Publishers)
  • Marina Endicott, The Little Shadows (Doubleday Canada)
  • Zsuzsi Gartner, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
  • Genni Gunn, Solitaria (Signature Editions)
  • Pauline Holdstock, Into the Heart of the Country (HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Wayne Johnston, A World Elsewhere (Knopf Canada)
  • Dany Laferrière, The Return (Douglas & McIntyre)
  • Suzette Mayr, Monoceros (Coach House Books)
  • Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man (McClelland & Stewart)
  • Alexi Zentner, Touch (Knopf Canada)
Having just looked at the Man Booker shortlist, there are two repeating titles: congrats on the double nominations for both Patrick deWitt and Esi Edugyan, both of whom are from British Columbia. Congratulations are also due to the small publishers on the list: House of Anansi Press has two nominated titles (deWitt's being one of them), Coach House Books, and NeWest Press. Many of these books have been on my to-read list for a while, so now it's time to move them up to the top, I suppose.

The shortlist of five books will be announced on Oct. 4 and the winner will be named on Nov. 8. Besides getting a whole lot of prestige, the winner of the Giller receives $50,000 and each of the other four finalists receive $5,000.

Man Booker Prize Shortlist

The Man Booker shortlist came out today and features two novels by Canadians – Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, which I loved, and Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, which I have not yet read – which is always exciting. The Booker winner will be announced on Oct. 18, but until then, we'll have six books to be in suspense about.
Each of these authors has won £2,500 by virtue of making the shortlist, and the winner receives and additional £50,000.

Friday, September 2, 2011

In overdrive: Randy Bachman on Vinyl Tap Stories

I moved this week, and in the chaos of boxes and moving trucks and no Internet, I didn't have a chance to post. I will be back next week, but in the meantime, here's a piece I wrote for the National Post about Randy Bachman and his new book Vinyl Tap Stories. It's in today's paper, or you can read it online. 
The first time Randy Bachman heard himself on the radio, he cried. He thought he’d made the big time.  
Of course, that was back in 1962 and Bachman was only a kid, and his band, Chad Allan and the Reflections, was still years away from becoming The Guess Who. Nevertheless, when the local after-school radio program played the band’s first single, Tribute to Buddy Holly, it felt like the real deal. 
“You actually sit and listen to it and you’re in awe and disbelief and you actually cry,” Bachman says, his voice slowing down as he remembers. “We actually had tears. This is your Elvis moment or your Beatles moment or your Madonna moment.”   
Bachman has come a long way since then, both musically with The Guess Who and BTO, and with his radio presence. In 2005, Bachman started hosting Vinyl Tap on CBC Radio. Although it started as a summer replacement show, thanks to the CBC strike that year it got replayed and became a hit. Small wonder: Bachman pours his years of experience and anecdotes into weekly themed shows, playing music and telling backstage stories on topics from everything to girls’ names to transportation.   
The show, which also has a podcast on the way, is the basis for Bachman’s new book,Vinyl Tap Stories. The project collects the anecdotes and insight Bachman offers up on his two-hour show and distills them into themed chapters, each of which ends with a suggested playlist. 
Read the rest...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why that book changed your life

When people ask me what my favourite book is, I'm a little proud not to have an answer. There are a lot of books that I reread annually, and there are many more that greatly affected me while I was reading them, and continued to afterwards. I like to think I'm lucky that no one specific book stood out. The question, though, of our favourite book(s) is implicitly tied to the bigger idea that a book can change you somehow. I looked into that question for the National Post and here's what I found:
The claim that a book can change someone’s life is one that’s made over and over again. Usually, we brush it aside as a cliché, but what if it was actually possible?

“The idea was to say, ‘OK, now what really are the psychological effects of reading?’ ” Oatley says. To try and work out an answer, he and Maja Djikic put together a study to measure how personalities can be changed by literature. Participants were given either Anton Chekhov’s story “The Lady with the Little Dog” or a version of the story rewritten in a nonfiction style by Djikic, which included all the same information, was the same length and at the same reading level. Participants did personality tests before and after reading. 

The question of the psychology of fiction is one that Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, has been working on for 20 years. He and some colleagues started the website On Fiction in 2008 to track work related to the psychology of fiction.

“The people who read the Chekhov story, their personalities all changed a bit,” Oatley says.
Read the rest on The Afterword...

Girls in White Dresses

I have been lucky, this summer, to have a job that requires me to read all kinds of books I might now have picked up on my own. Oh sure, some of them are books I won't look at again, but there have been some gems in there, and one of them was Jennifer Close's Girls in White Dresses, a collection of related short stories about girls in their twenties. It sounds like the setup for a romantic comedy, or yet another summer book about weddings, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised to discover it's much more than that.

The first story centers on Isabella, who feels like the book's main character even though Close also writes about her friends Mary and Lauren quite a bit as well. "The Rules of Life" is about Isabella's sister's wedding, which must have been in the late '80s or early '90s based on the description of the bright blue bridesmaids dresses. Isabella was just a little girl, and the story is her memory of the wedding and all the work it required. In real-time, Isabella has just finished her undergrad and is packing up to move to New York with her friend Mary when she finds her own blue dress in the back of the closet and decides to put it in the dress-up bin. 

That first story really sets the tone for the book, with its funny but not too sentimental look back at a wedding, as well as its explanation of where these girls are in their lives. Isabella doesn't take memories of her sister's wedding and use them to fantasize about her own; she's excited about moving to New York for reasons besides trying to find a boyfriend; there's no pining or whining or find-a-man pacts, it's just a 21- or 22-year-old girl getting ready to leave home.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jennifer Close on Girls in White Dresses

I plan to write about Girls in White Dresses tomorrow, so I won't say too much now. I interviewed Jennifer Close last week and my profile ran in yesterday's National Post – if you missed it, it's on The Afterword. Here's a teaser:
When it comes to books about weddings, there tends to be three basic categories: sappy, catty and desperate. Girls in White Dresses manages to be none of those things, but maybe that’s because, despite its title, it isn’t really a book about weddings. 

“It’s funny when people say, ‘Oh, you wrote a book about weddings,’” says author Jennifer Close of her debut collection. “And I’m like, ‘I guess, but I think I wrote a book about your twenties, and weddings just happen to you.’” 

It’s really the most transformational time in your life, Close says, because in 10 years you go from being looked after to having a career, and bills, and go from casual relationships to ones that might actually go somewhere. Along with all those transitions, she adds, comes weddings. 

Girls in White Dresses is a mostly chronological collection of related short stories about friends Isabella, Lauren and Mary, and some of their mutual friends. The book starts when the women are in their early twenties, fresh out of university, and leaves them on the cusp of 30. Although some of the stories deal with weddings and related events, the majority of the tales are about friendship and the way life changes during the first adult decade.
Read the rest on The Afterword.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sex on the Moon

We often ooh and ahh over novels that ring so true we can't believe they're fiction. The characters are so perfect, the (often) period is rendered just so, and we get caught up in everything that happens. That's as close to non-fiction as a lot of readers get. But, for all our admiration of these hyper-realistic novels, we rarely talk about the non-fiction that reads like fiction – stories so crazy with such a strange cast of characters that we think it must be made up. Of course, it isn't (usually, anyway), and that just seems to heighten how surreal the story it. Sex on the Moon, Ben Mezrich's latest non-fiction thriller, is just like that.

On the surface, Sex on the Moon is the story of a heist, specifically, the theft of a 600-pound safe filled with moon rocks from NASA. But, because that crime is so huge and so ridiculous, as much as this is a book that came about because of the crime, it is really the story of the man who committed it. Thad Roberts was a co-op student at NASA on his third of three tours when he carried out the audacious plan he'd been formulating in his head for months. He was on his way to becoming an astronaut – his dream – and he decided to steal from NASA. For a smart guy, Thad spends a lot of the book being incredibly stupid.

But we should back-up, as Mezrich does, and look at who Thad is. To be honest, I spent the majority of the book really frustrated by him. Thad is a strong central character, and it's clear that Mezrich had lots of access to him while he was putting the book together, but he's a hard guy to like. Early in the book we learn that Thad has been disowned by his Mormon parents for having premarital sex with his girlfriend, who he later marries. They're a very young couple and without financial support from home, Thad ends up dropping out of college for a while to help make ends meet. It's unfulfilling, though, and when he decides to go back to school and is casting around for a goal, he settles on astronaut.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sex on the Moon: Ben Mezrich goes from Facebook to NASA crook

It's funny how the print cycle works. I read Sex on the Moon three weeks ago, interviewed Ben Mezrich two weeks ago, and it's all coming together this week. I'm going to write about the book on Thursday, but in the meantime, here's the beginning of my National Post feature about the author – you can read the whole thing in either today's paper, or over at The Afterword.
How do you move your career forward after writing a bestselling book about Facebook that went on to be an Oscar-winning movie? Well, you write about the kid who robbed NASA. 

“The guy stole a 600-pound safe full of moon rocks; how do you beat that?” says Ben Mezrich, author of Accidental Billionaires, the book that became The Social Network, and Bringing Down the House, which was made into the 2008 film 21. Mezrich’s latest book, out this month, is Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story behind the Most Audacious Heist in History, and it’s another completely improbable-but-true story about a super-smart guy who sets out to do something crazy. 

Sex on the Moon is the story of Thad Roberts, a NASA co-op student who was on his way to entering the space program when he decided to steal a safe of moon rocks. But Roberts’ story begins long before he gets to NASA, and Mezrich takes his time explaining, in a way, what kind of man would attempt such an audacious theft.
Read the rest...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Help

For some reason, whenever a book gets too popular, I become less interested in it. It's contrary and weird and I'm not sure why it happens, but it does: the more people who recommend a book to me, the more wary I am about reading it. At least partly, I think it's because I like to come to books in my own time and at my own pace, and I think I've been caught up in the hype before and then been really let down by the book. All this typically changes, though, when said book is being made into a movie that I'm going to see (either for work or by choice, or some lucky combination of the two). That was the case with Kathryn Stockett's The Help: it was on the bestseller list almost immediately after its release and everyone talked about it, and then out came the movie (which opened last night), so I cracked and read it. Then I couldn't put it down.

The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early '60s and is told from the perspectives of three women: Aibileen and Minny, who are both black maids, and Skeeter Phelan, a white woman who has just returned to town after finishing her undergraduate degree. Skeeter is the only one of her friends to finish university – all the others left to get married – and her return to Jackson sees her catching up with old friends Hilly and Elizabeth, both of whom are married with children and running households of their own. Hilly is the queen bee of Jackson society ladies, and her role as Junior League president ensures her influence. So, when she decides that white homes with black maids need to build separate bathrooms for the help, she expects that to happen, starting at her friend Elizabeth's house.

Aibileen is Elizabeth's maid, and besides all the cooking and cleaning, Aibileen is also basically raising Elizabeth's daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen has spent her entire working life raising white children for their parents, but she always leaves before they get too old. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, worked for Hilly's mother until Hilly had her fired and then spread rumours that she was a thief. Minny, in a fit of anger, does the 'Terrible Awful" (which I won't give away) and then fears for her life. She ends up getting a job cleaning for Celia Foote way out in the country. Celia is a "white trash" country girl who married Hilly's ex-boyfriend. She has therefore be banned from Jackson society (although she doesn't know it, and her attempts to make friends are heartbreaking) and has no idea Minny is supposed to be a thief.

Real Time Web Analytics
Powered By Ringsurf