Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Review: Aimee Bender, An Invisible Sign Of My Own

Author: Aimee Bender
Publisher/Year: Anchor Books, 2000

Aimee Bender’s first novel (her first book The Girl in the Flammable Skirt was a collection of short stories) An Invisible Sign of My Own is quirky tale of a woman on the edge of compulsive collapse. Given its subject matter, it is not always the easiest novel to wrap your brain around. It holds itself slightly aloft from the reader, as if to underscore the broader theme of incomprehension that weaves its way through story. Regardless, Bender has painted a vivid portrait of psychological disturbance that is as serious and worrisome as it is humorous and enchanting. Not the easiest of combinations to pull off.

The central character of the story is Mona Gray, an obsessive compulsive who has recently retained a job as a math teacher at a local elementary school. She does not appear to have any of the qualifications for this position expect for her neurotic love of math. In her compulsion driven existence, numbers are her greatest comfort and stabilizer. In their absence, she finds herself knocking on wood until her knuckles bleed and washing her mouth out with soap whenever a sexual desire creeps to the surface.

Mona excels in the classroom, despite her lack of experience, thanks in large part to her fanatical attachment to math. She transfers this love to her rambunctious class of second-graders as a means to gain control over their restlessness. Mona charges them with creating numbers out of everyday material, an activity that brings to light numerous emotional foibles of the children. As a result, Mona’s classroom persona begins to give way to her wounded internal world as she becomes entangled in her pupil’s lives to various ends.

Bender’s rendering of Mona’s world is almost like a fairytale—a weird, warped fairytale but a fairytale no less. It is an imaginative tale carried forth by its dark and carefully constructed prose. Bender has created a surreal world wherein her characters drift through compulsions and obsessions with the steps of a professional ballet dancer constantly learning a new routine. You can never quite predict where Bender’s prose is going to lead even though she does not try to hide her character’s motivations and desires. As a result, An Invisible Sign of My Own is a most endearing and idiosyncratic story that creates a heroine and a world like no other.

Table of Contents

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Table of Contents: Tinsel - A Search for America's Christmas Present

Author: Hank Stuever
Publisher/Year: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009
Synopsis: Hank Stuever turns his unerring eye for the idiosyncrasies of modern life to Frisco, Texas, a suburb at once all-American and completely itself, to tell the story of the nation’s most over-the-top celebration: Christmas. Stuever starts the narrative as so many start the Christmas season: standing in line with the people waiting to purchase flat-screen TVs on Black Friday. From there he follows three of Frisco's true holiday believers as they navigate through the Nativity and all its attendant crises. Tammie Parnell, an eternally optimistic suburban mom, is the proprietor of "Two Elves with a Twist," a company that decorates other people's big houses for Christmas. Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski own that house every town has: the one with the visible-from-space, most awe-inspiring Christmas lights. And single mother Caroll Cavazos just hopes that the life-affirming moments of Christmas might overcome the struggles of the rest of the year. Stuever's portraits of this happy, megachurchy, shopariffic community are at once humane, heartfelt, revealing – and very funny.

What Others Have To Say:

Seattle Times
"an uneven but hilariously entertaining account about our Christmas culture."

Mercury News
"well worth reading, but it's a coin toss whether those who do so will find it funny or sad."

Entertainment Weekly
"While he occasionally lapses into bewildered snark, overcome by all those megastores and megachurches, he still manages to find the heart in his characters' obsessive consumerism."

Curtis Sittenfeld, Author
"In this dazzling feat of reportage, Hank Stuever gets at what's best and worst not just about Christmas but about us as Americans. Hilarious, insightful, compassionate, and hugely entertaining, Tinsel is a gift (holiday or otherwise) to anyone who loves great writing."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Table of Contents: Candy Freak - A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

Author: Steve Almond
Publisher/Year: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004
Synopsis: Driven by his obsession, stubborn idealism, and the promise of free candy, self-confessed candyfreak Steve Almond takes off on a quest to discover candy's origins in America, to explore the little companies that continue to get by on pluck and perseverance, and to witness the glorious excess of candy manufacturing.

From the Twin Bing to the Idaho Spud, the Valomilk to the Abba-Zaba, Almond uncovers a small legion of singular handcrafted candy bars made by unsung heroes, working in old-fashioned factories for tiny profits to produce something that they love. Fascinated by the emotional power of these confectionary delights, the primal and persuasive experience of the world in our mouths, Almond describes our candy cravings in sensuous and titillating detail. Though the road is laden with free samples, he discovers that the world of candy making is not the sweet world of childhood reveries but one beleaguered by stiff competition, closely guarded secrets, and increasingly limited markets. But no matter. As he also finds, every candy maker, even when poised on the edge of failure, is happy, indulgent, and childlike. For finally, even the darkest market forces, even the clout of the Big Three candy companies that threaten to wipe out all others, cannot lessen our desire to lose ourselves in chocolate.

What Others Have To Say:

The Village Voice
"As Almond tours generations-old factories and hears about the sanguine plans of the family members who run them, he sees the story as universal: It's an illustration of the Wal-Mart-ization of America."

Amy Sedaris, Actress and Comedian
"I got a real sugar rush and cluster headache reading this bittersweet book by Steve Almond-joy, the sugar daddy himself. I won't sugar coat it-this book is one sweet treat."

San Francisco Chronicle
"The factory tours eventually blur together, and Almond's overuse of the word "freak" as a noun, verb and adjective is the literary equivalent of shredded coconut -- a distraction from otherwise original prose."

The Boston Globe
"Part personal memoir and part cultural history, "Candyfreak" is the work of an obsessive."

Chicago Sun-Times
"It is Almond's almost stream-of-consciousness voice that lifts this material from a merely pragmatic investigation of chocolate, or of his own predilections, to a humorous yet thoughtful meditation."

Read an excerpt (about 1/3 down the page)!
Read Almond's Candyfreak Tour Diary

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review: Deborah Schupack, The Boy On The Bus

Author: Deborah Schupack
Publisher/Year: Simon and Schuster, 2003

The Boy On The Bus is a short book that lingers long past its pages have been digested. It is a deceptively simple story, relying more on psychological progressions and transgressions than any physical or tangible plot elements. The novel presents one idea and alternately shines a bright light and encases it in shadows as the narrative progresses to its fuzzy and somewhat uncomfortable conclusion.

The story starts with Vermont housewife Meg being beckoned to the school bus parked in front of her house to retrieve her eight-year old son Charlie. There is one slight problem with this task: she does not believe the boy to be Charlie. Something does not seem right with the boy who seems to look and talk and act like Charlie. Meg senses something amiss but fear stops her from immediately questioning the boy who may or may not be her son.

Once Charlie is off the bus, Meg begins the inevitable mental process of comparing the Charlie she knows to the Charlie that she sees before her. The Charlie that left the house that morning was asthmatic with a sickly pallor and a fear of life. The Charlie that returns is healthy, hungry, adventurous and emotionally stronger. Unsure if she can trust her observations and intuitions, Meg summons both Jeff, her common law husband, and Katie, her rebellious thirteen-year old daughter, home to get their opinions on this baffling Twilight Zone-esque mystery.

Both Jeff and Katie, as well as the local sheriff, Charlie’s pediatrician and neighbors join in on the ‘mystery’. But their involvement is teritiary at best and is wholly summed up by Jeff: “You’re his mother. You know best.” Yet the more Meg observes Charlie, the more she becomes unhinged and detached from the reality surrounding her. Her attempts at questioning and testing Charlie only yield more questions instead of the answers she so desperately needs. No definitive answers emerge over the course of her observations, making Meg more tense and anxious with each passing minute.

Meg is not the most likable female character you will ever come across. She is actually most unlikable, even to people who are not mothers. She passive-aggressively pushes people away when they obviously do not want her to control them. Charlie, with his illness, is the only one who cannot escape and she pours all her energies into making him dependent on her. But it is really Meg who is dependent on Charlie, which is partly why this new Charlie shakes her to her very core.

Charlie’s blurred identity mirrors Meg’s own imprecise identity. He is emblematic of her wasted ambitions, the goals unattained, the domestic prison she constructed for herself and her family. The title of the novel could have easily been called “The Woman in the House” instead of “The Boy on the Bus”.

The novel essentially calls into question whose identity crisis is really the precipice for Meg’s suspicions of Charlie. Is it Meg or is it Charlie that is really at stake? With this unclear motivation at its centre, the novel presents an eerily realistic account of a family in psychological limbo, with the characters bending and reaching over and through each other to determine and then escape their family’s dysfunctional existence. Their loneliness and pain on an individual and collective level bleeds through every spoken and unspoken word.

Schupack has created a crafty and engrossing mystery with her debut novel. Her sparse writing makes you want to keep reading in anticipation of having the answers unravel in one fell swoop. But the moment of revelation never comes as she makes the wise choice to maintain the unease of the reader, to not give them an easy out from the psychological web she has weaved. Schupack keeps the identity conundrum of The Boy On The Bus tightly wound and unresolvable. And it is this deliberate approach that makes it almost impossible for the reader to keep a distance from the characters and their plights.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Table of Contents: Mrs. Perfect

Author: Jane Porter
Publisher/Year: 5 Spot, 2008
Synopsis: For Taylor Young life is very good. She has a handsome husband who loves her, three gorgeous children, a personally designed and decorated dream house. Suburbanite trendsetter and super mom—life couldn’t be more perfect. And as long as no one notices the fragile woman beneath her coifed and polished image, things will stay that way.

Then, a devastating secret bursts Taylor’s fairy-tale bubble, suddenly making her a cul-de-sac pariah, and stripping her of the role that defined her. With her struggling to maintain her alpha image, Taylor finds help from the unlikeliest of people, her nonconformist nemesis, Marta Zinsser. But to become the woman her family truly needs, Taylor must first believe in the person she is hardest on—herself.

What Others Have To Say:

Chicago Tribune
"Jane Porter creates a richly emotional story about a realistically flawed and wonderfully human hero who only discovers what is important in life when she learns to let go of her quest for perfection."

USA Today
"Porter's authentic character studies and meditations on what really matters make Mrs. Perfect a perfect summer novel."

Book Reporter
"Porter’s charming book reminds us that it’s not our possessions that define us, no matter what Madison Avenue tells us. It’s who we are and how we treat each other that really counts."

Kirkus Reviews
“...The witty first-person narration keeps things lively in Porter’s latest. Taylor’s neurotic fussiness provides both vicarious thrills and laughs before Taylor moves on to self awareness and a new kind of empowerment. The glittery high-end fantasy is delivered with enough humor to leaven the silliness, making this a feel-good read.”

Reader's Guide
Read an excerpt (scroll about 2/3s down the page)!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Review: Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea

Author: Mark Dunn
Publisher/Year: Anchor Books, 2002

Ella Minnow Pea, the title and lead protagonist in Mark Dunn’s quirky and loving ode to the alphabetarian in all us, lives a happy existence on the fictional island of Nollop. This island, located just off the coast of South Carolina, has a distinguished heritage as having been the home of Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Dunn’s modern fable is a spirited literary experiment evolving from the pleasures and devastations that arise as a result of the worshipfulness the Island’s residents lay at the feet of their famous history.

This worshipfulness is manifested in a brilliant monument to Nollop that includes his famous sentence. Time passes unmarked on Nollop until one eventful day a century later when the carefully constructed terracotta letters start falling off the monument one by one. As the letters continue to fall, the Island undergoes a widespread panic. They believe that the falling letters are a sign from Nollop himself, signaling them to reevaluate their use of these letters. The High Council’s resolution is to ban the use of the fallen letters, and those who do not follow the law are to be banned from the Island as well.

And so begins the transformation of this once peaceful place into a military state. Neighbors turn against neighbors. Books are burned. People stop speaking and writing for fear of punishment. Eventually, the monument has just five letters remaining, ‘LMNOP’ or (conveniently) Ella Minnow Pea. It is Ella and her small group of dissidents who first work to change the Island’s policy regarding the alphabet mayhem, and then work just as hard to develop a new pangram that will allow the Island to emerge from their language lock down.

Dunn tells the story in a series of letters, with each letter mirroring the restrictive communicative bounds taking place in the story. His literary device also stays true to the story as the people of Nollop are letters writers because of inconsistent telephone service. What Dunn provides with these letters is a first-hand account of how truly reliant we are on the alphabet, and how the loss of even one letter can severely affect people’s abilities to communicate and even function at a basic level.

You can also look upon Ella Minnow Pea as a light commentary on organized religion and government paranoia. As the story progresses, the Island moves from an ideal to a frightening parable on the devastating effects language sanctions can have on individual’s identity. Dunn constructs his characters and events deliberately to highlight how the fervor of panic can be tied to even the most trivial of items. The obvious solution to the problem would be to create new letters but the resident’s devotion blinds them to the easy solution. As such, it is a story of power abuse, as elders and elected officials take control and push their interpretations onto others.

Ella Minnow Pea is a clever exercise in creative writing. The novel can be a trying read as Dunn must, in order to maintain the story, use phonetic spellings and odd phrasings to keep the narrative moving forward. Readers may begin to feel less secure in their abilities to comprehend what is being said, what Dunn is trying to say, because of his approach. But take the time and expend the effort, especially if you are a language lover, as you will be most assuredly dazzled by what Dunn has constructed with his debut novel.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Table of Contents: Before I Wake

Author: Robert J. Wiersema
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2007
Synopsis: Injured by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street, Sherry Barrett lies in a hospital where her doctors say she will never wake up. Her distraught parents, Karen and Simon, make the painful decision to take her off life support. But when they do, Sherry spontaneously begins breathing on her own, the first of many miraculous events to occur.

Henry Denton, the driver who struck Sherry, is haunted by the accident and attempts to take his own life, only to be saved by an unexplained force. Sherry's nurse discovers that the little girl has the power to heal. When word of her gift leaks, the sick begin lining up to be saved and a mysterious stranger sets his sights on vanquishing the believers and the Barretts.

What Others Have To Say:

Quill & Quire
"While there’s no doubt that Wiersema’s compassion and sympathy for his characters are genuine, and that he tells a cracking good tale, occasionally it’s just possible that he may be pulling our leg."

Canadian Literature
An elaborate, unbelievable plot drives the novel and peoples it with stereotypical, unbelievable characters."

Quarterly Conversation
"Wiersema creates an intriguing novel that’s part literary, part supernatural thriller."

Interview with

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: Emma Donoghue, Slammerkin

Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher/Year: Virago, 2000

You may get the impression from one glance at the cover of Slammerkin that it is a bodice-ripping historical romance with more heated sex than one can handle. But first impressions can be wrong, and indeed they are in this case. For sure, there is indeed much sex within Emma Donoghue’s novel but it is anything but heated. And there is some bodice-ripping but not for reasons or exploitive plot points as one may suspect or expect. No, Slammerkin (slang for loose women or loose clothes) is a story that uses sex as the catalyst for demonstrating the damaging impacts of an ego indulged. Such is not the fodder for your typical romance novel.

Emma Donoghue based the novel on the true story of Mary Saunders, a young servant girl who murdered her mistress in 1763. All that is know about Mary’s life comes from snippets of information that Donoghue fastens together with great care. She deftly intertwines the real with the imagined to produce a vibrant, mesmerizing novel that leaves the reader wanting more and simultaneously wanting it to be over.

Slammerkin is staged during the last two years of Mary’s life. It all begins simply enough, with young Mary wishing for a different social station than that provided by her mother and stepfather. Mary’s is a poor existence, circumstances she bitterly notices are in direct opposition to her ambitions and want for the finer things.

Mary becomes fascinated with the local harlots, whose colorful clothing and perceived freedom represent her deepest desires. It is through her romanticized fascination with these ‘slammerkins’ that Mary begins to covet that which is seemingly out of her reach, specifically a shiny red ribbon worn by one of the harlots. Driven by her desire to have her own red ribbon, Mary decides to give into a peddler’s demand for a kiss in order to obtain this ribbon. It is an ultimately disastrous decision, setting into motion Mary’s expulsion from her family home, unqualified disownment and eventually, death.

Once on the streets, Mary is taken in by Doll Higgins, the same prostitute Mary used to watch. Doll teaches Mary how to earn the money necessary to buy whatever she wants. Faced with little prospects, Mary does as Doll instructs and becomes a slammerkin.

It is far from an idyllic life for Mary but she learns to be self-sufficient and learns the value of appearance in getting what one wants and needs. Eventually Mary is taken into a religious home for wayward girls and attempts to restore her life to one of virtue. The life offered by the home is at first welcomed but then disdained as its rules and confinements restrict the freedom Mary had when she was a “Miss”.

Mary escapes from the house and soon conspires to make her way to Monmouth, her mother’s childhood home. Through some deception, Mary becomes a maid and seamstress to Jane Jones. Yet again, Mary finds her attempts at redemption suffocating and she is soon back to her street ways. Her deceptions start to unravel and old desires resurface, trapping Mary with no escape other than murder.

Slammerkin is a strange and compelling read. Donoghue does not romanticize Mary’s life or the events that marked her troubled existence. There is a rawness to Donoghue’s writing, most especially in dealing with Mary’s abortion and subsequent harlot life, that is at times difficult to digest. Though her writing is unforgivingly real, Donoghue also infuses a surprising tenderness that compels the reader to constantly shift their perception of Mary from heroine to victim, transgressor to transgressed and back again.

As such, this is not a novel that one wants to read but rather, one that you want to consume. It is both fascinating and depressing, a testament to Donoghue’s skill as an author and as a storyteller. Slammerkin is an exercise in managing a conflict of emotions that is not unlike that experienced by Mary herself, both in the real and the fictional realms. And this ability to make the reader reflect on their own lives through Mary’s experiences is the defining quality that makes Slammerkin a most rewarding literary encounter.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Table of Contents: Still Alice

Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Year: 2009
Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children and a house on the Cape, is a celebrated Harvard professor at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life. As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives a devastating diagnosis: early onset Alzheimer''s disease. Fiercely independent, Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away.

What Others Have To Say:
The Globe and Mail
"hrough her depiction of real-life situations and their impact on a close-knit family coping with this tragic disease, Genova shows us that when you lose your mind, you still have your heart, your default emotional responses and your essential self. Something for all of us to remember."

USA Today
"...reads like a gripping memoir of a woman in her prime watching the life she once knew fade away."

Alzheimer's Society
"...represents a valuable step forwards in the drive to raise public awareness of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, a crucial aspect in the fight to defeat these devastating conditions."

Reading group guide

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher/Year: Picador, 2003

There can be no doubt that Jeffrey Eugenides’ second novel Middlesex was most worthy of winning the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. Middlesex is a devastating story, drawn in with varying shades of humor, pain, love, lust and betrayal. It is a powerful tale, raw, almost hypersensitive in its account of teenage angst and familial deceptions. It is a mesmerizing journey, soaring and grounding like a roller coaster ride out of control. Eugenides has constructed a hypnotic epic story and hero/ine, both of which the heart and mind stubbornly refuse to relinquish long, long after you have moved on to the next novel.

This odd and yet completely believable novel starts with what may be the greatest opening sentence of the past decade, “I was born twice, as a baby girl, on a remarkable smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” And thus begins the remarkable and riveting story of Calliope Helen Stephanides, or Cal, a 41-year-old hermaphrodite once thought to be the only daughter of middle-class parents.

The genius of Eugenides’ story lies 80 years in the past, in a family history stained with incest and a resulting rogue gene. It all starts in Turkey during the 1920’s where a fateful union of brother and sister sets off the events that come to shape Cal’s destiny. From there, the story leaps to Detroit during Prohibition, to the defining race riots of 1967, to the suburban middle-class existence of Grosse Pointe in the 1970s, and finally to Berlin in the present-day.

Throughout these settings, Eugenides taps into the confusing and aching adolescent love stories that create the basis of the story. He begins with Cal’s grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, delicately lending windows of insight into the culture and environment that sanctioned the evolution of their suppressed desires. From there, he moves to their son Milton who achingly falls in love with his cousin Tessie, a union that compounds the genetic trail that would eventually lead to Cal.

It is with Cal/lie’s various explorations in sex and love that Eugenides truly hits his stride, deftly layering his prose to develop a lead character and story that begins in feminine youth and eventually leads to an equally confusing and aching masculine adult love story. Eugenides’ mastery of the written word makes the sexual discoveries Cal experiences during early adolescence jaw dropping. He captures the emotions and confusion of the time with such keen magnification that feelings of sympathy, admiration, and perhaps even jealousy may be sparked in the reader.

And this is a major reason why Middlesex works so splendidly, the relationship between Eugenides and his muse. Eugenides manages to switch between Cal/Callie without disrupting the balance of the narrative. He does this by carefully constructing weapons of insight for the character—intelligence, insight, humor—that are transferable between both identities regardless of gender formation. The fluidity with which Eugenides moves between these identities propels the story forward at an astounding pace, leaving you slightly breathless in the wake of its detail and lyricism.

Eugenides has managed to do what few authors ever have--produce a story as elegant, as haunting, as enriching as their debut work (The Virgin Suicides). And while it may have taken ten years for Eugenides to release his Homer-esque sophomore effort, it is clear that those were not idle years. Middlesex is absolutely transfixing in its complexity and simplicity. There is little doubt that this momentous and exhilarating novel is going to occupy a place of honor as a literary masterpiece for decades to come.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Book Mark: Canada Reads 2010

CBC's 2010 Canada Reads contest kicked off Tuesday with the announcement of this round's book selections:

Novel: Generation X by Douglas Coupland
Champion: Roland Pemberton a.k.a Cadence Weapon, Musician

Novel: Fall On Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald
Champion: Perdita Felicien, Hurdler

Novel: The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy
Champion: Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child Canada

Novel: Good To A Fault by Marina Endicott
Champion: Simi Sara, Vancouver media personality

Novel: Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner
Champion: Michel V├ęzina, Montreal belletrist

We look forward to re-reading a couple of our favorites, diving into the new offers, and hopefully providing a book review or two along the way.

The competition will air March 2010 on CBC Radio.

Adaptation: The Road