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?
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