One of the ways that we can reach out and touch the community is through the media. Each month, I am part of an on-air book club that reviews a variety of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, selected by members of the panel. The Speaking Volumes panel includes Janice Comeau (a writer from Yarmouth), Chris King (from Baddeck and Mahone Bay, depending on the time of year!), and me.
If you would like to listen to "Speaking Volumes," tune in to Mainstreet (the drive-home program) on CBC Radio 1 (90.5 in Halifax, 89.1 in Truro) from Monday to Friday, 3:00-6:00 pm. We usually air the first week of the month, during the last hour of the show.
If you would like to purchase any of these (or other books), please visit your favourite bookstore or shop on line at Amazon or Chapters. Of course the East Hants Library is always available!
This month we are reading Robert Galbraith's first mystery, The Cuckoo's Calling. Galbraith was recently outed by the British press as the nom de plume of JK Rowling (of Harry Potter fame).
Working from our most recent reviews, we have discussed:
Frank Macdonald's A Possible Madness describes fictionally the interaction and collusion between government and business interests in resourced-based industries, in this case, coal mining. Not a bad book, but his first novel, A Forest for Callum was better.
A graphical novel, Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat 2, which was a first for us. The premise of the book is a trip across North Africa, with characters and creatures encountered on the journey, punctuated by asides from the Cat. Our shared complaint was the miniscule hand drawn fonts.
We all enjoyed Richard Ford's Canada, a personal history that profoundly reflects on two life-inTcidents in a coming-of-age novel. All of us would like to read more of Richard Ford. Stephanie Domet said The Sportscaster was a life-changing novel.
Marjorie Celona's first novel, Y, describes both the physical and emotional struggle of a child abandoned at the YMCA in Victoria to find her birth parents and put together the story of her life. Chris and Janice enjoyed it more than I did.
Charlotte Gill's Eating Dirt, is a personal reflection based on almost 20 summers of planting trees in western Canada. It is reminiscent of Kathleen Norris' Dakota, where the relationship between persons and the earth is visceral. Except for some of the pedantic bits, we enjoyed the book.
We all enjoyed Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, the most recent novel by the author of The English Patient. It recounts in a rich variety of episodes a young boy's journey from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) to England in the 1950's. The 'cat's table' refers to the least desirable seating in the dining room (in other words, as far from the Captain's table as possible).
Linden MacIntyre's Why Men Lie , the third volume of the Long Stretch trilogy was, for all three of us, not as satisfying as The Bishop's Man (which won the Giller prize). The female protagonist -- indeed all the characters -- seemed somewhat stereotypical. But it wasn't a bad read.
Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, the iconic creator of Apple was a compelling history of personal technology. None of us were impressed with Steve Jobs as a person, but his vision for personal electronics has changed the world.
Stephen King's 11.22.63. King explores the relationship between hope and inevitability through the medium of time manipulation. Janice and I loved it; Chris stopped reading after 250 pages because he didn't like one of the more violent sections in the book. This is one of King's best.
Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, recounting Ernest Hemingway's early life as a writer from the perspective of his first wife, was an interesting character study from Hadley (Hemingway's wife). Because we know the outcome, her crisis of conscience becomes the focus of the novel.
Award-nominated David Bezmogis' The Free World, describes the intertwined lives of Russion Jewish emigrees caught in Rome in transit between Latvia and Canada. I tended to pity the characters rather than sympathize with them.
Ward Just's Rodin's Debutante, was an interesting read for us all, from a writer none of us knew. Telling the story of a young man's coming of age in the suburbs and then the city of Chicago, we see how the threads of his life hold larger realities and experiences.
Dominique Fortier's On The Proper Use of Stars, is a translation of an award-winning first novel about the ill-fated Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage. Chris and Janice liked it more than I did, but it made me rethink notions I had about Franklin.
Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, was for me, smug and misleading. I liked his premise but wasn't convinced, especially when he used himself as an example. Chris and Janice liked it better. If you want a better example of his work, check out The Tipping Point.
Sounding Line by Anne DeGrace, is a novel loosely based on the "lights in the sky" incident in Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia, in 1967. A surprising engaging family narrative parallels the paranormal events, and in the end leaves the existential questions unresolved (just like in real life). We all enjoyed it.
Alexander MacLeod's short story collection, Light Lifting, struck Janice and me as thoroughly compelling and very readable; Chris, on the other hand, found the story arcs repetitive and depressing. If it has been a while since you've engaged the short story form, this is an excellent collection, and many of the settings matched some of my own experiences.
Judy Fong Bates' A Year of Finding Memory, was a memoir/journey discovering the author's Chinese roots through the lens of her Canadian upbringing. Chris liked the book. Janice thought it was a daring act of self-disclosure. I found it florid and unrelentingly tedious.
Emma Donaghue's Room was one of the Booker Award short-listed books, telling the story from a 5-year-old's perspective on a troubled and redeemed life that we all enjoyed. It reminded us of Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (see below).
Time Magazine editor Richard Stengel's Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage, was a bit of a miss for us, as being too adulatory and not critical enough. Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom might be better (Stengel was the ghost-writer).
Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, opens in 1930's Czechoslovakia and chronicles the lives and loves of people whose lives are connected through the architecture and unique characteristics of the signature room in the house. Part romance and part social commentary, it is a compelling narrative of intertwined stories that we all enjoyed.
Lesley Crewe's Hit and Mrs. didn't quite work for us. The situational comedy was more visual than literary, and I was more interested in the characters than the plot. Nevertheless it isn't a bad bit of escape, and timely, considering Kelsey and I are going to New York this summer.
Robin McGrath's The Winterhouse began somewhat slowly, but charmed me through its episodes into an affection for the characters and involvement in the story. A nineteenth century romance in coastal Newfoundland is at the heart of the story, with a twenty-first century reflection through a series of correspondence that punctuates the story.
Jim Lynch's Border Songs, is a topical novel dealing with border issues between Canada and the United States. The eccentric characters with distinct points-of-view made it an entertaining and enjoyable read. Here is an interview with author Jim Lynch from CBC Radio One's As It Happens that was recorded in June and rebroadcast on December 29 (you'll have to copy and paste it into your browser -- it's an audio clip).
Our Days Are Numbered by Jason Brown is a layperson's guide to the importance of mathematics in our lives. We gave it a mixed review, noting Brown's passion for his topic, but finding it self-indulgent and esoteric in places. I learned how much I didn't know.
The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews, is a character study of family life touched by mental illness. A road trip, two eccentric adolescents and a dialogue driven narrative weren't enough to delight us this month.
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, a coming of age story of a 13-year-old boy in 1980's Worcestershire, England, was a hit with all of us. Reminiscent of Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (see below) it deals with a boy's struggle with a speech impediment and his relationships with peers and adults.
Howard Blum's American Lightning details the backstory of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 and the events that followed. This narrative non-fiction is a bit hyper in style and reads more like Stuart Woods, but that doesn't diminish the story.
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. Set in early 20th century Ireland, it is a set of parallel memoirs. I would not have read this by choice, perhaps, but the payoff at the end was worthwhile.
Elmore Leonard's Pagan Babies, written in 2000, is my first encounter with one of Leonard's books, although his movie credits are not unfamiliar (Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma). As we discussed it, our observations about genre and style took up more of our conversation time than the novel itself. I said to one of the producers that I thought it was "seriously alright."
In August, we read Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence -- both Chris and Janice groaned when I named it -- and while we agreed that there are moments of beautiful writing, the setting, use of names and episodic narrative proved difficult. Again, this is one of the books that I liked better than the others on the panel.
Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights on Air brings together a group of unique characters in Yellowknife, NWT, at the time of the Berger commission in the 1970's. Their lives intertwine both inside and outside of the studio; Hay's background in broadcasting shows through vividly.
Frank Macdonald, the publisher of the Inverness Oran, has written a lovely coming-of-age novel, A Forest for Calum, which captured spirit of the 50's and 60's in rural Cape Breton without becoming maudlin or cloying. This was the first time that we three had agreed that this was a great read in a long time!
Paul Quarrington's King Leary, was the Canada Reads recommendation this year, which we greeted with mixed reactions. Ostensibly about hockey, it is really the story of an old man's journey into senility. It was quirky and sentimental by times, but not one of our favourites.
A Life on Wheels by Martin Lobigs, was a spectacular premise: a solo bicycle journey from Newfoundland to Tierra del Fuego. It succeeds as a travelogue of his five year ride, but I had no sense of the spiritual or emotional quality of the journey.
David Thewlis (an actor of some repute) has satirized the London art scene in The Late Hector Kipling. As he details the flamboyant mid-life meltdown of the protagonist, I had to force myself to stay with him. This is not a book I would recommend to everyone.
Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel -- my recommendation for frivolous seasonal reading -- is not everybody's cup of Christmas cheer. I thoroughly enjoyed it (although not quite as much as Lamb, also by Christopher Moore)
Sarah Gruen's Water for Elephants, a coming of age novel set in the depression-era midwest, is a plot-driven recollection with a surprising pay-off at the end. Thoroughly enjoyable!
Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides is the story of a seemingly normal family whose five daughters all take their own lives. It was filmed in 2000 by Sofia Coppola. Having read the book, I'm not inclined to view the movie -- it was voyeuristic and indulgent, albeit well written. Chris and Janice were more enthusiastic about it.
Michael Redhill's Consolation: A Novel is a delicate novel, telling parallel stories in a fine balance separated by 150 years. I was particularly affected by the historical narrative, yet the poignant contemporary story would not exist without it.
Mark Helprin's Freddy and Fredericka, a novel about a thinly disguised pair of British notables, banished to live in America until they fully realize the royal vocation, is a big read -- almost 600 pages -- but immensely satisfying.
Alisa Smith and B.J. Mackinnon's The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Eating Locally, is a reflection of one couple's commitment to eat foods grown or produced within 100 miles of their home. I found it a bit preachy and gratuitous for my taste.
Nicole Krauss' The History of Love, is a challenging novel demanding a significant investment of concentration and awareness, but the payoff is equally large. It is part enigma, quest, and spiritual autobiography.
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill is a troubling first novel that was the Canada Reads laureate this year. It deals with Baby, a twelve-year-old girl, growing up on the streets and underbelly of Montreal. I was surprised at how convincing her voice was in naming as 'normal' things that would be appalling in any other circumstance. It is not a nice read, and certainly not for everyone.
Marina Lewicki's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was a disappointing and self-indulgent novel that was cited as a nominee for the Booker prize, although its merits were lost on me. The characters generated no sympathy or affection, and the only moral lesson I could glean was "you reap what you sow."
Canadian author Wayne Johnston's The Custodian of Paradise is an engrossing tale of a woman's search for identity by discovering the unknown parts of her own history. It is a prequel to Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.
Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, is a first novel about a daughter-father relationship, told from the perspective of the central character, Blue van Meer. The inner workings of Blue's mind, her insights, logic and outlook imbue the book with a grown-up version of Junie B. Jones meeting Nancy Drew (and I mean that in the most positive way!).
John Fasman's The Geographer's Library is reminiscent of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, with the story of arcane artifacts woven into a contemporary journalist's exploration of an unexpected death in a small New England town.
Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist combining elements of myth, fable and quest in a young man's spiritual journey, teaching about matters of providence and fate. I thought it charming, but not life-changing; one of the other members compared it unfavourably to Forrest Gump.
Stephen Kimber's Reparations, a legal drama about 1970's Halifax and the end of Africville could have been a good book, but was filled with cliches and stereotypes; the other two on the panel liked it far more than I did.
Isabel Allende's Zorro, is a biography of the swashbuckling hero's early life finely detailed and interwoven into eighteenth and nineteenth century California, Spain and Louisiana.
Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, detailing life in Afghanistan from the fall of the monarchy to the present day, is a compelling narrative that moves through the cycle of shame, guilt, atonement and redemption.
Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World, details the California earthquake and resultant San Francisco fire of 1906, in a work which is part history, part geology, part spiritual journey, as told by a master raconteur.
Jasper Fforde writes literary thrillers, where the literature itself becomes the reality of the story. The Eyre Affair incorporates elements of Bronte's Jane Eyre, James Bond and Bridget Jones in a story reminiscent of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, etc.).
Ami MacKay's The Birth House is a first novel, set in the early 20th Century in rural Nova Scotia at a time when traditional midwifery is being challenged by the technological professional health care initiative, and - surprisingly for me - was not just a "chick book."
John Mortimer's Quite Honestly is a mannered satire in the style of David Lodge or GK Chesterton, but the premise doesn't seem to hold up in the end.
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Neffenegger examines the meaning of destiny told through a love story expressed by two independent narratives, one on a fixed time line, and one on a fluid time line.
David Bergen's The Time In Between is a tale set largely in post-war Vietnam, with elements of quest, longing for meaning, and the huge scar across the collective North American psyche that those of us who remember (or who read about) the Vietnam War still live with. It is both character- and plot-driven, and a most rewarding book to read, even if the end is left somewhat open and unresolved.
Paul Ruditis' Rainbow Party is a contrived novel about teen sexuality, provoked by the notion of a "rainbow party," a gathering where oral sex will be offered by girls wearing different coloured lipstick, hence the rainbow effect. It is cautionary, and something of a morality play (the virtuous get rewarded, the profligate get sick), but even so is a significant talking point for matters sexual and adolescent. I didn't like it, but was glad I read it.
Sue Goyette's Undone, is a collection of poetry by an insightful observer of humanity and life. As I read it, I found myself looking at some of the most mundane things in a new light. The lasting image for me is the relfection about the tattoo artist, whose effect on the life of the recipient outlasts many other aspects. Did you know I have a tattoo?
Donna Morrisey's Sylvanus Now (a book where the setting in time and place are more compelling than the love story it purports to tell...but the women on the panel felt it was a fabulous book)
Christopher Moore's Lamb (you either love it or hate it...it is a fictional biography of Christ that is highly contrived and irreverent -- I loved it)
Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (a remarkable book told from the perspective of an autistic 15-year-old and one of the best books I have ever read)
Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (a delightful set of vignette mysteries that has an authentic voice of life in southern Africa...the first of a series)
Frank Parker Day's Rockbound (the best part about this two dimensional recollection of rural life on South Shore Nova Scotia is that it was written before the days of political correctness and as such has a refreshing honesty to it)
Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (a somewhat celibate thriller attempting to pass off some questionable Biblical scholarship in the guise of revolutionary revelation and conspiracy theory)
Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (a post-apocalyptic novel about genetic manipulation that must be read through the last paragraph)
Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees (a tale of redeemed relationships set in the segregated south)
Thad Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank (my recommendation) was just a bit too esoteric for Janice and Dawn.
Ann Kingston's The Meaning of Wife (a pretentious miss by an author who didn't disclose her own marital situation until the last ten pages)
The Holding by Merilyn Simonds (parallel, and sad, love stories set a century apart in southern Ontario which was almost good)
Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase (a moving spiritual autobiography by a luminary of inter-faith understanding)