Saturday, February 27, 2010

Table of Contents: My Life On A Plate

Author: India Knight
Publisher/Year: Penguin, 2000
Synopsis: Clara Hutt (known to herself as Jabba The), has put her foxy single days very much behind her (rather like her cellulite), and has Got Her Man.

She has a nice house, adorable children who only annoy her 90% of the time, a large, eccentric and charming family, and an attractive (but increasingly mysterious) husband. And she gets to have regular sex. Well ... she used to. Anyway, what the hell, it's only loins ...

Everyone wants to be married - don't they?

What Others Have To Say
The Times
"Clara [Hutt] is a thoroughly engaging modern heroine who never descends into head-clutching cuteness: she would eat Ally McBeal, on brioche, for breakfast."

The Sunday Herald
"...truly indulgent experience of reading the frothbuster of the year."

The Evening Standard
"The funniest novel of the year...A brilliant take on modern matrimony and a welcome antedote to Bridget Jones"

Read an excerpt

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Canada Reads: Anne-Marie MacDonald

In some ways we have left the best for last. Fall on Your Knees ranks as one our top 5 Canadian novels of all time. But this does not necessarily mean it translates as our Canada Reads favorite. Oh no no. We'll leave that determination until we get through the last couple hundred pages!

Brief Biography
- born in West Germany
- appeared in the films I've Heard the Mermaids Singing and Better Than Chocolate
- hosted the CBC Documentary series Life and Times from 1996 to 2007

Honours & Awards
- won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize - Best First Book for Fall on Your Knees
- won the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction and the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award in 1996 for Fall On Your Knees
- won the 1998 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award - Fiction Book of the Year for Fall On Your Knees
- was a finalist for the 1996 Giller Prize for Fall On Your Knees
- received the Governor General's Award for Literary Merit, the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award and the Canadian Author's Association Award for her play, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)
- was shortlisted for the Giller Prize for The Way the Crow Flies

Interviews and Reviews
Author Profile
Herizons article
Canadian Review and American Studies - Special Issue: Anne-Marie MacDonald

Quill & Quire
The Antigonish Review

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Table of Contents: The Society of S

Author: Susan Hubbard
Publisher/Year: Simon and Schuster, 2008
Synopsis: Ariella Montero is seeking the true identities of her mother and father--and of herself. She's been taught literature, philosophy, science, and history, but she knows almost nothing about the real world and its complexities. Her world is one wherein ghosts and vampires commune with humans; Edgar Allan Poe and Jack Kerouac are role models; and every time a puzzle seems solved, its last piece changes the entire picture.

When the last piece is murder, Ari goes on the road in search of her mother, who disappeared at the time of her birth. The hunt nearly costs Ari her life, and, in finding her mother, she loses her father. But gradually she uncovers the secrets that have kept the family apart, and she begins to come to terms with her own nature and its chances for survival.

What Others Have To Say
Monsters and Critics

Monday, February 22, 2010

Line By Line: Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

"Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another--physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion."

"Lonely was much better than alone"

"Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely surging."

"I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me."

"Tough shit, buddy."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Table of Contents: Comfort Food

Author: Kate Jacobs
Publisher/Year: Putnam, 2008
Synopsis: Popular Cooking with Gusto! host Augusta Gus Simpson, a widowed mother of two adult daughters who's about to turn 50, is tiring of her many obligations, which include throwing an annual birthday bash for herself. That trial pales, however, in comparison with the introduction of saucy former beauty queen and YouTube star Carmen Vega as Gus's cohost: Carmen is younger, hotter and very tight with the boss. It's soon apparent on the set that this new situation isn't working, so the two are packed off, along with a forgettable cast of secondaries, to a corporate team-building weekend, complete with New Age guide. When the resort's head chef calls in sick, a team-building opportunity presents itself.

What Others Have To Say
USA Today
"This book has no great surprises, just the pleasure of a good meal shared among people you love."

Library Journal
""Gus and the show's cast, with their humor, moods, and romance, are the sparks that bring this warm and irresistible story to life. Highly recommended."

Read an excerpt
Reading Guide

Table of Contents: The Professor and The Madman

Author: Simon Winchestor
Publisher/Year: HarperCollins, 1998
Synopsis: It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story — a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly — and mysteriously — refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane — and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

What Others Have To Say
"The elegant curio [Winchester] has created is as enthralling as a good story can be and as informative as any history aspires to be."

The New York Times
"Mr. Winchester leads one to visualize the afflicted, guilt-ridden, demon-obsessed Minor alone in his cell patiently compiling his vast lists, corresponding with Murray and ardently seeking recognition. The vision is exceedingly poignant."

The New York Times (2)
"It's ironic that the O.E.D., now revered ''as a last bastion of cultured Englishness, a final echo of value from the greatest of all modern empires,'' would demonstrate by its very method the degree to which English is not fixed but endlessly changing. "

San Francisco Chronicle
"[Winchester] has compiled enough history to create a fascinating Victorian vignette..."

The Washington Post
"Winchester's history of the OED is brisk and entertaining but sometimes exaggeratedly so; he risks sounding like an episode of "Lifestyles of the Victorian Sublibrarians."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Canada Reads: Nikolas Dickner, Nikolski

NikolskiTranslator: Lazer Lederhendler
Publisher/Year: Random House, 2005 (translation 2008)

“Archaelogy is the discipline of the future. Every time an old IBM finds its way to the dump, it becomes an artifact. Artifacts are the main products of our civilization. When all the computer experts are unemployed, we’ll still have millions of years of work ahead of us. That is the fundamental paradox of archaeology. Our discipline will reach its peak at the end of the world.”

These are the wise words of one Thomas Saint-Laurent, a secondary but key character in Nicolas Dickner’s crafty first novel Nikolski. It is an appropriate statement, as its undertones apply to all three of the main protagonists looping through Dickner’s literary excavation site. Dickner himself takes on the role of archaeologist throughout the novel, evaluating with ease and discipline the lives, experiences and intentions of his multi-faceted characters. These evaluations occur in a similar fashion as to how we the readers may guide guests through a photo album or slide show, pausing on a singular photo, working through the memories from the bits of information contained within its boundaries and then moving on to the next without any further regard.

Nikolski initiates with the narration of an unnamed young man who represents one point on the interlocked triangle of Dickner’s archaelogical zone of personal destiny. Through this young man, the reader learns that Nikolski is a tiny village on Unmak Island in the Aleutians “[i]nhabited by thirty-six people, five thousand sheep and an indeterminate number of dogs,” and the final resting place of one Jonas Doucet.

For the unnamed narrator, Nikolski is the name with which he christens a treasured plastic compass, the only item he has of his father Jonas. This compass is a constant companion for the narrator following the death of his mother, strung around his neck like a grown-up version of a baby pacifier. It is the only link the narrator has to life as he knew it, and to the life that he thinks could have been. The constant companionship of the compass with the unnamed narrator also keeps the reader tied to the soon-to-be colliding biographical and geographical worlds of the narrator’s yet unknown family branches, as evidenced in the compass’ refusal to point anywhere but Jonas’ final resting spot.

As the story progresses, it is revealed that Jonas is also the father of Noah, an archaeology student from Saskatchewan. Noah is half-Chipewyan, raised solely by his mother Sarah in the back of an ever-moving caravan nicknamed “Grampa”. Sarah and Noah roamed across Canada, barely staying in any of the towns they encountered on their nomadic adventures. He decides to move to Montreal to study archaelogy, specifically nomadic peoples, leaving his mother to continue passing through the Canadian landscape solo. A large component of his story is the continuous act of writing letters to Sarah, picking post offices based on ever-slipping knowledge of her travel patterns to which to send his life updates.

The third protaganist is Joyce, recently transplanted from the East Coast where she was raised by her widowed father. Joyce grew up listening to the grand stories of her family’s long lineage of pirates and buccaneers from her grandfather, including the seafaring life of her uncle Jonas. Then one day Joyce learns that her mother is not dead, and has been seemingly peddling the family legacies south of the border. This knowledge propels Joyce to bolt from her small town existence and head for Montreal. Joyce dreams of being a pirate like her legendary ancestor, Heremegilde Doucet, and she makes this a reality by becoming a computer hacker and identity thief.

Once all three individuals converge on the same stomping ground, Nikolski starts to pick up a little steam by having their lives intersect, albeit independently, through the second-hand bookstore where the unnamed narrator works. Joyce finds a job at a local fish market, working with immigrant Maelo who happens to be sharing a flat with Noah. Neither Joyce nor Noah ever meet though, despite their one degree of separation; they remain ignorant of their biological connections, their shared genetic predisposition to nomadism.

And the idea of nomadism is the arching untidiness that Dickner uses to define his central thesis. Nikolski is pinned together by coincidences and chances that fan together into an absorbing rumination on destiny. All three protagonists are soloists, seeking connection with the world around them but in controlled measures they believe to be of their own making.

Yet Dickner writes their world and experiences such to portray that none of the characters escapes the machinations of fate. The events through which their connections appear and dispel are inexplicable, "[a]nd that is exactly the trouble with inexplicable events, you inevitably end up interpreting them in terms of predestination, or magic realism, or government plots."

The concept of predestination seems hokey but transforms under Dickner’s guidance into a charming exercise of narrative randomness. Each character’s story represents different points on the Nikolski compass with the needle swaying endlessly between desire for the open road and longing for a singular place to call home.

The untidiness mentioned earlier inspires numerous loose ends that never get resolved by the conclusion of the novel. Readers may be discouraged at the lack of challenge or action devices thrown in the path of these characters. Nikolski is not a novel to pursue out of a need for an ending or conclusionary codas. Its cleverness lies in the ways Dickner dances around such potential inevitabilities with evocative imagery and a cast of eccentric and believable characters. He picks up and picks at the artifacts created through each character’s experiences and renders an elegant and creative view of their world. Nikolski is a high achievement in storytelling, by craftily threading an allusive story that propels the reader to do just the same.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Canada Reads Book Club: Douglas Coupland

We have worked our way through Generation X so time to provide a few dets on its author. Interesting guy but cannot say that we are fans beyond the masterful work of Microserfs. Slightly sad to say it but cannot be denied. We do have enormous respect for someone this mult-talented though!

Brief Biography
- born in West Germany; moved to West Vancouver in 1965
- attended McGill University
- graduated from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design
- wrote and executive produced a television series based on his novel jPod
- codesigned a eight-hectare urban park in downtown Toronto adjacent to the Gardiner Expressway
- selected as the presenter of the 2011 Massey Lectures.

Honours and Awards
- two Canadian National Awards for Excellence in Industrial Design
- nominated for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada and Caribbean) for Hey Nostrodamus!
- won the Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction in 2004 for Hey Nostrodamus!
- Everything's Gone Green won the award for best Canadian feature film at the 2006 Vancouver International Film Festival, a film for which he wrote the screenplay
- Generation A finalist for the 2009 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Interviews and Articles
The Write Stuff
January Magazine

The Guardian

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Table of Contents: All We Ever Wanted Was Everything

Author: Janelle Brown
Publisher/Year: Spiegel & Grau, 2008
Synopsis: Set amid the country club gossip and rampant affluenza of Silicon Valley's nouveau riche, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is a smart, acerbic comedy chronicling one eventful summer when the lives of the Miller family are turned upside-down.

After his pharmaceutical company's explosive IPO, Paul Miller leaves his wife Janice for her tennis partner, attempting to cut her out of nearly a half-billion dollars. Eldest daughter Margaret is on the run from her creditors after her fledgling post-feminist magazine Snatch implodes; and neglected Lizzie, a naïve teen enjoying a newfound popularity with boys at school, discovers that she’s actually become the school slut. The three Miller women retreat behind the walls of their Georgian colonial to wage battle with divorce lawyers, debt collectors, drug-dealing pool boys, mean girls, country club ladies, evangelical neighbors, their own demons, and each other.

What Others Have To Say:

"Brown unforgivingly draws out the ways in which the fortunes of the women at its heart have been shaped by their inability to confidently articulate or carry out their own desires without falling victim to the whims of men."

The New York Times
"...employs a women-under-duress theme familiar to viewers of weeknight TV movies, but executed with more nerve and wit."

The Los Angeles Times
"There are moments that feel like social satire, but the book is neither funny enough nor dark enough to qualify as such."

Time Out New York
"Brown’s prose is lazy and leaves too little to the imagination."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Line By Line: J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zoey

"We're freaks, that's all. Those two bastards got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that's all. We're the tattooed lady, and we're never going to have a minute's peace, the rest of our lives, until everybody else is tattooed, too."

"I'm sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody."

"Against my better judgment I feel certain that somewhere very near here - the first house down the road, maybe - there's a good poet dying, but also somewhere very near here somebody's having a hilarious pint of pus taken from her lovely young body, and I can't be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight."

"I'm sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I
could respect."

"She was not one for emptying her face of expression. "

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book Mark: Canada Also Reads

The National Post has released their short list for their inaugural Canada Also Reads. This came about as what they call a 'friendly counterpoint' to the Canada Reads event (but this is the National Post, soooo....).

The panelists will each present a short essay defending their selected book: making the case for why you need to read it. Two essays will be posted each day through the week starting March 1. And on March 8 a live chat will be held with the panelists and the authors and enjoy a rousing discussion of the titles.

Short List:
• Writer and critic Steven Beattie defends My White Planet by Mark Anthony Jarman

• Author Tish Cohen (Inside Out Girl, Town House), defends The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

• Singer/songwriter Andy Maize (Skydiggers) defends Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

• Poet Jacob McArthur Mooney (The New Layman's Almanac) defends The Last Shot by Leon Rooke

• Blogger John Mutford defends Yellowknife by Steve Zipp

• Author Lisa Pasold (Rats of Las Vegas) defends You And The Pirates by Jocelyne Allen

• Author Neil Smith (Bang Crunch) defends Come Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

• Author Zoe Whittall (Holding Still For As Long as Possible) defends Fear of Fighting by Stacey May Fowles

Table of Contents: The Electric Michelangelo

Author: Sarah Hall
Publisher/Year: Faber and Faber, 2004
Synopsis: Cy Parks is the Electric Michelangelo, an artist of extraordinary gifts whose medium happens to be the pliant, shifting canvas of the human body. Fleeing his mother's legacy -- a consumptives' hotel in a fading English seaside resort -- Cy reinvents himself in the incandescent honky-tonk of Coney Island in its heyday between the two world wars. Amid the carnival decadence of freak shows and roller coasters, enchanters and enigmas, scam artists and marks, Cy will find his muse: an enigmatic circus beauty who surrenders her body to his work, but whose soul tantalizingly eludes him.

What Others Have To Say:

The Guardian
"...a work of unusual imaginative power and range."

The New York Times
"The way to read [it] then, is to put aside quibbles about plot and allow the language and imagery to sweep you up."

BBC News
"This is an exhaustingly energetic book filled with emotion, historic trivia and sometimes sordid detail, all tied up into a very unusual plot."

Reading Guide

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Review: Alice Hoffman, Blackbird House

Author: Alice Hoffman
Publisher/Year: Doubleday 2004

Alice Hoffman has yet again proven her talents as one of the foremost writers on the American literary landscape today. In her novel, Blackbird House, Hoffman takes a different direction and uses one Cape Cod farmhouse to connect different generations of occupants. The result is a lush and invigorating read, one that celebrates the richness of life and love and family and death as each story lingers and then fades into the next.

Blackbird House begins during the British colonial times, when fisherman John Hadley decides to give up the sea in order to provide a more stable existence for his beloved wife and sons. His dream is to give his wife "something precious and lasting and hers alone." Tragedy unfortunately strikes the family before he can fully bring this dream to fruition. The lasting legacy of this tragedy is a blackbird, the beloved pet of the man’s 10-year old son who sets the bird free just before he and his father drown. This blackbird, whose feathers have turned white, figures into the following eleven tales.

The house then falls to a young man who hates the sea, having lost his leg to a giant halibut. He finds love with a young woman who comes to board with him after she loses her home and family in a tragic fire. His love for her compels him to find and bring home the only thing that she wants, “a tree that has pears the color of blood.” This love story leads into a tale of heartbreak as the eldest daughter of this couple recounts how her mother cried red tears when her husband died. The imagery is so vivid in this tale that you may begin to believe it almost possible to cry such tears.

From here the house falls into the hands of numerous occupants. There is Larkin Howard, a young man who must care for an orphan baby abandoned by its mother. There is Violet, in love with a man who betrays her but who ultimately finds true love in an unexpected friend. There is also her son Lion West, whose allegiance to his mother’s ambitions result in tragedy, and his son Lion West Jr who marries a Holocaust survivor during World War II.

Throughout the mini vignettes, Hoffman drops in touch points to signal the different eras. The advent of the automobile age figures into one tale. Hippies take over the house in another and grow marijuana in one of the fields. The house eventually evolves into a summer retreat for two different city families, both seeking a respite from tragedies at home.

Over a span of two hundred years, Hoffman interweaves the stories of the house’s various occupants with the aid of some creative narrative devices. The white blackbird is one, so too are the red pears, water, and even the fruitwood floor in the kitchen. All of these items are nimbly interwoven into the stories, lending additional richness and resonance to the narratives These repeating images are emblematic of the repeated themes that, when combined in various configurations, tell the story of the house at the centre of it all.

Apparently Hoffman used her own summer cottage in Cape Code as inspiration for these tales. Built in 1846, the house had fallen into disrepair after a century of ownership by the original family. Legend had it that her house was occupied by the ghost of a young boy who had died at sea. This tangible background may explain why Hoffman slips easily in to the various voices and circumstances of her characters. She does not dwell on each story for long, just long enough to elicit the emotional core, the magical symbolism to build upon in the next and future tales.

Blackbird House is not a novel nor is it a collection of short stories, as each story is interwoven with the ones preceding and following. The result is a fluid, almost hypnotic reading experience that defies definition in its time-arching quest to comprehend the profound, crazy, and confusing complexities of life and love.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Canada Reads Book Club: Update #3

Woohoo - we are over halfway through the books! Though, with the re-read of Fall on Your Knees still to come, perhaps on a page-by-page ratio we may not be as far along as initially thought....mmm....

Anyway, reading is progressing very well and Generation X is now in our clutches. A lot is riding on this novel, as the first read years ago did not leave a positive impression and there is trepidation in picking it up again. But if fellow Edmontonian Roland Pemberton aka Cadence Weapon says to read this book, well then, we are going to give it another shot.

This past week we started posting our reviews/musing on each of the novels. First up to bat was Good to a Fault, and coming up this week will be Nikolski. (And just between us, Nikolski is shaping up to be our favorite of the lot - shhhh, don't tell the others.)

Over the past few weeks we have posted brief bios for Marina Endicott, Nicolas Dickner, and Wayson Choy. We always find it interesting to check up on an author, as it provides an additional lense on the reading experience. Upcoming will be bios for Douglas Coupland and Anne-Marie MacDonald.

And for a little something extra, we took a timeout from reading last week to take on the CBC challenge of picking a novel that we would defend if selected to participate in the Canada Reads event. Our selection did not require any thought at all - The Imperialist - and our defense demonstrates why.

Hope all is going well with those joining us on this journey! Happy reading!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Table of Contents: The Catastrophist

Author: Lawrence Douglas
Publisher/Year: Other Press, 2006
Synopsis: Meet Daniel Wellington: art historian, academic star, devoted husband, and total basket case. Although Daniel has known nothing but success, he’s convinced the future promises nothing but disaster. When his wife, known simply as R., presents him with a tiny, size-XXS Yale sweatshirt, Daniel is seized by the impulse to bolt; the specter of imminent fatherhood sends him into a full-blown existential crisis. Soon this well-intentioned young professor finds himself plotting bigamy, lying about his past, imagining his pregnant wife in the arms of an androgynous grad student, and explaining to the dean his obscene e-mail to the lead in a student production of Miss Julie.

What Others Have To Say:

The New York Times
"With material [this] fresh, why saddle yourself with a mopey protagonist in his underwear in a seedy apartment, eating Fruit Loops all alone?"

Entertainment Weekly
"That we enjoy the company of this walking disaster is a tribute to Douglas' witty prose; that we love R. — practical, attractive, and shrewd — can be chalked up to the author's bedrock understanding of what constitutes an appealing human being."

America Psychiatric Association
"... winner and too witty and haunting a tale to be thought of as summer reading."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Line By Line: Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

"All I ever wanted was a world without maps."

"He has been disassembled by her. And if she has brought him to this, what has he brought her to?"

"Kirpal’s left hand swoops down and catches the dropped fork an inch from the floor and gently passes it into the fingers of his daughter, a wrinkle at the edge of his eyes behind his spectacles."

"We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead."

"The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows, one minaret answering another, as if passing on a rumor of the two of them as they walk through the cold morning air, the smell of charcoal and hemp already making the air profound. Sinners in a holy city."

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Canada Reads Book Club: Good to a Fault

It is almost too easy to take on the significance of Marina Endicott’s title for her second novel, Good to a Fault. It is a question for the ages – what is good? Everyday events and interactions demonstrate answers to this question, as we judge ourselves and others on a basic principle of what is good and just vs. what is bad and unjust. With Good to a Fault, Endicott places the reader into a specific scenario where what is good and just is presumed already in the plot, prior to eliciting the readers full engagement with the characters. The reader is then faced with tracing through the story a singular dominant idea of when does being and doing ‘good’ become ‘too good’, when does it become a fault.

Good to a Fault revolves around Clara Purdy, “single, childless of course, took care with her appearance; fortyish, and not in good spirits for some time since her mother’s death.” When driving across town one day, Clara ends up in a car accident with the Gage family – father, mother, three kids, and grandmother. Not quite devastating enough that the family car (and temporary home) is totaled, the Gage family is delivered a second knockout blow when mother Lorraine is diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer.

Lorraine is immediately admitted to the hospital for treatment, and Clara makes the almost-too-easy decision to house the rest of the Gage family with her during Lorraine’s treatment. Clara soon becomes a pseudo-mom to the kids as their father Clayton takes off and the grandmother, Mom Pell, turns out to require almost as much care and attention as the children.

It is at the early plot juncture, where Clara and the Gage family literally collide, that Clara’s story within the novel’s pages and within the character’s mind begins to figuratively and speedily collide and unfold in degrees with all manner of items. Her existence fractures into various pieces, each becoming attached to another person within the story and each triggering off additional contemplations as to how deep and how far does Clara’s goodness run.

These pieces inform the novel’s movement forward, with various characters rotating into the narrative’s first chair. Besides Lorraine, there is Darlene/Dolly, the tween daughter of Lorraine and Clayton who struggles between cherishing her love for her own mother and giving in to the physical comforts and caring that are provided through Clara’s middle class mobility. There is Mom Pell, a shrewd and distrustful woman who works hardest at sustaining the barest minimum of ties to everyone, if only to ensure an outlet and audience for her demands. There is also Paul Tippett, the local Anglican priest who is bearing his own collision of what is good vs. bad, both of which are embodied within his relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife and in his burgeoning intimacy with Clara.

These rotations, however, are incomplete in formation when compared against the number of characters introduced throughout the story. Little insight is provided in the complexities of Lorraine’s brother Darwin, whose presence is significant for Lorraine, the children, and Clara but remains relatively unexplored. The same holds true of Mrs. Zenko, Clara’s elderly neighbor, who always has a kind word and just the right food for any moment. Then there is Grace, Moreland and Fern, Clara’s own extended blood family, who appear and disappearance without any other purpose than to support the construct that Clara is good.

And to realize that construct, there must be the required contrast of who is ‘not good’. The easy answer to this comes in the form of Clayton, whose abandonment of his family at the most stressful points is expected from the point of his introduction. His is an almost stereotypical literary existence, with little to no elements of dimensionality woven into his fabric for even the briefest of contemplations. This is not to say that he does not hold value – all the characters most certainly do – but rather, that his and the other subsidiary characters value is not as exposed or as hidden to make the excavation and consideration of the story’s central themes and questions all the more invigorating, all the more long-lasting.

Good to a Fault is about prose though, and not plot. Endicott herself has admitted this in interviews. Endicott is quite adept at layering situations and words in order to command focused attention. It is through the layering though that the story does not fully realize it own seductiveness. Is Clara a saint or is she condescending by layering her morality on the children? Is it really Clayton who is selfish, or is it Clara? The answers do not come hard and fast, but with a loping gander that uniquely - and this is a testament to Endicott’s fluid and nuanced writing voice - privileges the good within each reader. There are moments however when a jolt, an unexpected plot spark could have quickened the pace just a bit to give the story additional vivid strokes.

But, somewhere in the office, computer, mind, etc. of Marina Endicott is the rest of Good to a Fault. In a interview, Endicott stated that the novel started out at twice the size of its final 363-page length. This is the version that I would like to get my hands on someday. For all its heft and engaging prose, Good to a Fault feels a bit unfinished. I found myself slipping between the dense lines at times, searching for more and more despite feeling simultaneously weighted down by what was visible on the pages. The fragility, the intangible quality of the answers to the questions raised left this reader slightly unsatisfied. The subtly of the story’s conclusionary moments seemed almost like a brush off more than a heartfelt fade out for the characters. And I suppose from this perspective, Endicott’s lovely novel can be seen as evolving into an emblem of its own musings and considerations – good, to a fault.

Table of Contents: When Madeline Was Young

Author: Jane Hamilton
Publisher/Year: Doubleday, 2006
Synopsis: When Aaron Maciver’s beautiful young wife, Madeline, suffers a head injury in a bicycle crash, she is left with the mental capabilities of a six-year-old. In the years that follow, Aaron and his second wife care for Madeline with deep tenderness and devotion as they raise two children of their own. Inspired in part by Elizabeth Spencer’s Light in the Piazza, Hamilton offers an honest and exquisite portrait of how a family tragedy forever shapes the boundaries of love.

What Others Have To Say:

The Washington Post
"Jane Hamilton has created a story that goes to the heart of the mystery of caritas , and she has revealed in the apparently flat line of a good life a vital and absorbing human drama."

The Boston Globe
"Hamilton concentrates on something far more extraordinary -- simple human decency -- in the remarkable ability of one family to discover that what remains of life after tragedy can still harbor its own treasures and charms."

USA Today
"Hamilton suggestively shows how change happens, because for one, invisibly broken person, it never does."

San Francisco Gate
"...a curious book, laced with drama though eerily vacant in analyzing its repercussions."

Read an excerpt from chapter one.
Reader's Guide

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Canada Reads Book Club: Wayson Choy

Three books down and two to go! Well, actually, we have read all five but feel that we should re-read Generation X and Fall On Your Knees after all these years so all can be fairly reviewed.

Loved, loved The Jade Peony! Kept turning the pages to keep reading the story -- after we had reached the end! Good thing we have All That Matters on order.

Read the first chapter online.

To pass on the love, we have some information on the novel's author Wayson Choy that we just know you want.

Brief Biography
Raised in Vancouver's Chinatown by both his adoptive parents and his extended community.
Attended the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the late 1950s to study creative writing.
Taught English at Toronto's Humber College in 1967-2004, where he was also a faculty member of the Humber School of Writers.
Inducted into the Order of Canada in 2006.

Honours and Awards
The Jade Peony
1996 - City of Vancouver Book Award
1996 - Trillium Book Award (shared with Margaret Atwood)

Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood
1999 - Globe and Mail notable book of the year
2000 - Edna Staebler Creative Non-Fiction Awards
2000 - nominated for a Governor General's Award

All That Matters
2004 - Trillium Book Award
2005 - ScotiaBank Giller Prize Shortlist

Interviews and Articles
Asian Canadian Interview
Quill & Quire Profile

Canadian Literature
Curled Up
The New York Times

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Table of Contents: When I Was Puerto Rican

Author: Esmeralda Santiago
Publisher/Year: Random House, 1993
Synopsis: Esmeralda Santiago passes her childhood as a jíbara, a Puerto Rican country girl, living in a small village. Her life changes when she is thirteen, and she moves to New York City, where being Puerto Rican means occupying an indeterminate place in a bewildering hierarchy of Blacks, Jews, and Italians.

How Esmeralda overcomes adversity and eventually wins acceptance to New York City's High School of Performing Arts is a record of a tremendous journey, and a remarkable and affirming story of the changes brought to a young mind as it experiences poverty, love, despair, adolescence, cultural confusion, and hope.

What Others Have To Say:

Entertainment Weekly
"Puerto Rico is part of America, but Santiago illuminates the brilliantly hued chasm between them."

"When in the epilogue Santiago refers to her studies at Harvard, it is both a stirring and poignant reminder of the capacities of the human spirit."

The Los Angeles Times Book Review
"What is particularly appealing about Santiago's story is the insight it offers to readers unaware of the double bind Puerto Rican Americans find themselves in: the identity in conflict. Is [she] black or white? Is she rural or urban? Even more importantly, is she Puerto Rican or is she American? [One] can only be grateful that Esmeralda Santiago has chosen to explore her culture and share what she has found."

San Juan Star
"You will see how one particular woman's journey from a rippled metal shack in a Puerto Rican countryside barrio becomes a story rich in reverberations about all those who have made a transforming physical and spiritual journey in life."

Readers Guide

Monday, February 1, 2010

Canada Reads Book Club: In Hypothetical Defense of The Imperialist

Sara Jeannette Duncan’s The Imperialist is not my favorite work of Canadian fiction. Truthfully, it is difficult to conceive of it hitting a list of my favorite Canadian novels at all. And yet, when taking up the challenge to hypothetically pick a novel to defend as part of the Canadian literary exhibition that is Canada Reads, The Imperialist is the only novel I could envision to hang my fighting hat on.

It is a conundrum of wits to be sure, to conceive that a novel I have only read once because I had to, would be the recipient of my flexed championing muscles. Surely the intent of Canada Reads is to select a novel that impassions a retention of its prose, that spurns forth proclamations of its literary excellence in conveying morality, nationality, emotionality, pick an –ality. But, alas, that is not to be the case here.

No, my championing roots itself in a singular movement of time when my embracement of our nation’s past and its seemingly stagnant stances on Canadianness moved from respectful distance to a warmth-filled bear hug.

The Imperialist came to my attention back in the early 1990s, during a course on Canadian intellectual traditions. During that same time, my University adopted a new slogan – “…it makes sense.” One day, our professor proclaimed the slogan as the ideal example of the themes portrayed within The Imperialist. Puzzled by her enthusiastic outburst, we began to contemplate her proclamation and turned the classroom into our own version of Elgin, the fictitious background to Duncan’s, and now our, play acting.

Some took up the positioning of the Murchisons, finding within themselves identification with the family’s yearning for the top of the social strata but coming up short against reality. Others cozied up to Lorne – who personifies the novel’s title - and his struggles to reconcile his imperialist ideals with his burgeoning romanticism towards the stoic Dora. Then there was me, who found myself aligning with Elgin itself.

See, The Imperialist is not a novel that seeks to define a Canadian identity anymore than I have ever sought to establish my own definition of such a thing. Duncan is enviously confident in the concept of a Canadian identity though, of a Canadianness that eases through all the nation’s participants. But there is no ‘one size fits all’ cloak to be worn, her novel betrays. Rather, The Imperialist is charmingly elegant in its portrayal of a kind of Canadian identity, that which swells within a legacy of…common sense?

Post-Confederation it was thought that imperialism was the best means for fulfilling Canada’s national destiny. This thought informs the basis for Duncan’s thesis, and the challenge she puts forth to her inhabitants. Lorne is charged with taking up the imperialist movement wholeheartedly in Duncan’s narrative and his reward is to be summarily and crushingly rejected for his willing sacrifice. Imperialism was too elitist then for longevity, and today it does no more than niggle in our collective consciousness. Its promiseful engagements are relegated to the back seat in our lingering quest for a true and steady destiny, for something that makes sense.

Our infant country embraced the Social Gospel movement instead, which brought forward the principle of common sense. The movement became an overt influence in the day-to-day lives of people through education and activism. Supporters believed the mind to be more important than the emotions and the body, and common sense its reasonable and rational understanding. The understanding was accepted as universal in its applicability and in its aspiration to unite for a better quality of life because it made sense.

Yes, this means that we are a country centred on, around, through common sense. Ours is not an in-your-face passion-filled ‘clutch your breast in pride’ existence. We are but a country of high hopes and slow lopes, of lofty dreams and starry visions, of mighty pragmatism and irreproachable logic. This is our Canadianness – to weeble wobble in any direction yet yielding to what is right, to what makes sense.

Duncan, with her deft hand, gets right to the heart of this with Elgin being the embodiment of our yearnings and yieldings. To my eyes, Elgin reflected back the vibrancy of my own contemplations on existing between individualism and collectivism; practicality and romanticism; yearning and attainment; distinction and commonness; passion and duty; idealism and realism; and on and on. She streamed a Canadianness before me that I had not conceived of as tradition, and I winked welcomingly, knowingly upon its passage as it all began to make sense.

Yet, I have never sung the praises of The Imperialist or reflected upon some memorable passage. I have never loaned out the book or admitted to have even read it. Partly my actions (or lack thereof) speak to the snob within me, the one who highly favors contemporary fiction over anything published in 1904. Moreso though, I have never felt words captured the engulfing presence of The Imperialist in my small world. After writing those previous words, I am feel more sound in this belief than ever before. My focused efforts at articulation are too slight and too plain.

So, my championing comes from living The Imperialist’s brand of passionate influence, its yearning consciousness, its quietest contemplations each and every day. You too. It makes sense that I know exactly where the novel resides on my cluttered book shelves, but not necessarily where it resides in the Canadian canon. It makes sense that I remember the moments of its reading, and the moments of its discussions in class all those years ago, but not to write such moments into the spotlight for personal recognition or literary acknowledgment.

And yes, it makes sense that I could conceive of championing within this hypothetical Canada Reads arena a novel – this novel - that I have only read once because I had to. The Imperialist continues to weeble wobble within me an affection and affectation like no other work of Canadian fiction. And like any true Canadian, my head yielded to that which is reasonable and rational, and auspicously so too did my heart and my imagination.

Line By Line: Sarah Dessen, The Truth About Forever

"There is never a time or place for true love. It happens accidentally, in a heartbeat, in a single flashing, throbbing moment."

"I just think that some things are meant to be broken. Imperfect. Chaotic. It's the universe's way of providing contrast, you know? There have to be a few holes in the road. It's how life is."

"But I'd long ago learned not to be picky in farewells. They weren't guaranteed or promised. You were lucky, more than blessed, if you got a good-bye at all."

"Shoulda, coulda, woulda. It's so easy in the past tense. "

"An empty frame, in which the picture is always changing, makes a statement about how time is always passing. It doesn't really stop, even in a single image. It just feels that way."