Friday, September 30, 2011

The 5th Annual Canadian Book Challenge- September Roundup (Sticky Post-- Scroll down for most recent post)

How to add your link:
1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea)

Also, in the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. This brings me up to 1/13)

*Forgot to add your August review links in August? Not to worry! Feel free to add them in September. Also, check out this months Canadian Book Challenge contest.

Guest Post- Judi Witzig's review of Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

Elizabeth Hay has written a beautiful painting of a story of two generations of women living and loving their lives back and forth across the plains and cities of Canada. Hay’s descriptions of the lands, fields and forests that the story inhabits provide a setting that binds the characters together. The story begins with the murder of a young girl, out picking chokecherries, but the narrator Anne, is introduced well into the first chapter. Anne is the next generation, and her story is intermixed through the sharing of the story of her Aunt Connie, a teacher and her mother’s sister. Tragedy, like this murder, stalks those around her, striking intermittently but repeatedly. Few men populate this book and the three with telling roles in the story, Parley, Michael and Syd, serve as the loom on which Elizabeth Hay weaves the stories of these women’s lives.

The story ripples out across the countryside with the story of Connie as a young woman, teaching in a rural school. Parley is the school’s headmaster, Michael is Connie’s struggling student and Syd the Board of Education traveling evaluator. Connie’s story begins with her teaching, Parley’s understated wooing of Connie, and then of his treachery with Michael’s sister through his staging of a play – Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The ensuing death of Michael’s sister leaves a stain on each of these three lives. Syd is introduced, providing guidance and surety through the aftermath. A chance encounter years later during a train ride finds Connie, now a newspaper reporter, on a train with Parley and his wife and step daughter. All survive the train crash however lives are again stained in its aftermath.

Michael returns and through Anne’s affair with him, we learn of his and Connie’s love affair. The later affair brings a strain and creates a separation between Connie and Anne. Connie’s affair with Michael leads to the end of her brief marriage to Syd. Connie seeks out Parley in his self-imposed incarceration in a sanatorium after establishing another school across the provinces. The visit provides no satisfaction to either Connie or Parley who takes his own life in the subsequent years.

Anne’s story comes more into focus at this point in the story, usurping Connie’s which serves as the parallel to Anne’s growing self-awareness. It is the excavation of Connie’s story that brings the story of Anne and her artist mother. Michael reappears again at the end of his life, the continuing essence that binds the women. Syd too reappears, the survivor. Alone in the Classroom ends gently with Anne’s memories of Connie, Michael and a chance encounter with Paley’s surviving step daughter set forth in her writing. Her own search for self and identity tied back, as she learns, to another’s death in the same train crash that spared Connie and Parley.

Hays' female characters provide strong insights into what makes them tick. Yet the men in the lives of these women blow like the wind, sometimes strong and destructive, sometimes gentle and caressing – tugging and pushing at the lives the women lead. Alone in the Classroom is a compelling read that I enjoyed while sitting on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reader's Diary #763- Song Zelai (translated by Nancy Tsai): Jingzhen, Taiwan 1978

This week another story choice inspired by the Amazing Race. The 19th season started on Sunday with contestants first making their way to Taiwan.

From Song Zewai comes "Jingzhen, Taiwan 1978," the title referring to the setting. Basically it's a story of two competitors, Wu Quan, a self made businessmen and Ding Yen, who was born into wealth and business savvy. It's at a time when rumours abound that the U.S. is threatening to no longer recognize Taiwan. Consequently the Taiwanese markets are crashing. As people start to panic, selling off assets, moving, and investing in gold, Ding Yen makes a move to use fear and paranoia to his advantage.

With the similarities to today's deteriorating markets and skittishness compounded by the fear mongering of the news media, I quite enjoyed this cautionary tale, though I was surprised that Zewai switched focus from Wu to Ding. It's not just a Canadian thing to root for the underdog, is it?

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Reader's Diary #762- Angie Abdou: The Bone Cage

I've said before that I don't particularly enjoy books about teachers. I am a teacher and I often enjoy novels for the escapism they offer (not that I don't enjoy teaching!). Whether I'm whisked away to another locale, another time, or another profession, I eagerly pack my figurative bags, even if I don't always wind up enjoying the trip.

With that in mind, I was excited about being introduced to the minds of Sadie and Digger, Olympic swimming and wrestling hopefuls respectively. If nothing else, this would be foreign territory (even if it is set in Calgary, Alberta).

But once that novelty wore off, I felt somewhat disconnected to the characters. At first I was willing to take the blame. Perhaps I was so caught up in learning about the lifestyles of such athletes that I let myself become distracted, ignoring the plot. However, when I consider some of the hockey books that I've read, how that sport is almost as unfamiliar to me (I'm really not an athlete), and how I've still enjoyed them immensely (King Leary comes to mind) I realize I'm not entirely to blame.

It's taken me a while to pinpoint exactly why I wasn't blown away by this book and I've come up with two theories; it either needed a non-athletic character to balance out the other characters, or at the very least, an acknowledgement that athletes don't have a monopoly on ambition. In several scenes Sadie in particular seems concerned with clichés. The motivational speeches, the idea of putting all one's hopes in one long shot dream-- certainly these aren't unique to athletes.

Then, an easy defense can be made that this is just Sadie's insular perception, so preoccupied with her sport that she is ignorant of the outside world. Yet, I can't help to feel disconnected to the book. Not that I hated it and nor did I find the characters particularly flat or repulsive, but as a non-athlete I felt somewhat ignored as a spectator.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

For Those Who Hunt The Series Down- A Question

I was about to start reading David Adams Richard's For Those Who Hunt The Wounded Down when I noticed on the jacket cover that it is the conclusion to a trilogy that began with Nights Below Station Street. I'm quite disappointed in this as I've been looking for to reading FTWHTWD for quite some time but didn't realize it was part of a trilogy. To add to the disappointment, I don't own the first two books. So, for those of you that have read these books, I'm hoping you can help: does For Those Who Hunt The Wounded Down stand on its own or do I need to read the first two books in order for it to make sense?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Reader's Diary #761- Oonah V Joslin: A La Descartes

Oonah V Joslin's "A La Descartes" is a subdued slice of flash fiction about a picky eater. It's sweet, it's mildly amusing, but after reading about dysfunctional families for the last two Short Story Mondays, perhaps that's not a bad thing. And as my son seems to be going through a picky eating stage-- a hard fact for this balut and whale blubber eater to comprehend-- I can at least relate.

At the end of the story which appears at the Every Day Fiction website, readers have left comments about the story, almost all of which are favorable. One in particular caught my eye, saying that "Flash fiction is the perfect art form for showing everyday life." At first I thought I agreed with this observation, but then it started to nag at me. If Guy Hogan was right, then why did I feel somewhat underwhelmed by Joslin's story? I liked the writing after all, I thought telling the story mostly as a dialogue was a nice touch. But in retrospect, I don't think Hogan was correct. In such a short form, if nothing beyond the mundane happens it becomes the equivalent to your sister's funny anecdote about the dog posted on Facebook: ultimately forgettable.

Besides, I thought the solution to picky eater was a little too obvious. Since we're doing sweet and wholesome here, I was reminded of a picture book Debbie and I often read to our children: Kevin Henkes' Owen. Owen is a mouse attached to his security blanket, much to the chagrin of the nosy Mrs. Tweezers who lives next door. Mrs. Tweezers is full of suggestions for Owen's parents, including soaking the blanket in vinegar and hiding it under his pillow for the "Blanket Fairy" to whisk away. Neither of which works. Finally, she asks, "Have you tried saying 'No'?" They hadn't. Henkes has fun with the reader by acknowledging an obvious solution and presenting it after more novel ideas have been attempted. Joslin's story seems to present her obvious and lone solution as clever. Not quite. Not as memorable as Henkes' story either.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Colombia or Columbia?

I'm nearing the end of Angie Abdou's The Bone Cage and Digger, one of two main characters in the novel, is about to compete in a wrestling tournament in Columbia. Not British Columbia. Columbia, the South American country. But I've always spelled it Colombia. I've Googled it and it looks like I'm correct. However, it may be one of those cases where either is acceptable. Thoughts?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reader's Diary #760- Richard Van Camp: Angel Wing Splash Pattern

One of the short stories in Richard Van Camp's Angel Wing Splash Pattern is titled "The Night Charles Bukowski Died." Appropriate to mention Bukowski. Not that Van Camp has taken up where Bukowski left off, but there's a similarly free spirit flowing throwing his stories.

I find it a remarkable achievement that a collection of stories that are so different both in voice and content can somehow manage to achieve a consistent style. It's a style that lives in a no-man's land between mundane and sinister. Characters are somehow masculine but not macho, skipping rope with the crass and charming, and throwing one leg over-the-top. Mixing my metaphors? Angel Wing Splash Pattern inspires such nasty habits while abstaining from similar poison.

The stories in Angel Wing Splash Pattern are set in the Northwest Territories but they present a side I've never seen. I'd thank Van Camp for hauling the dark out into the light, but I suspect he's added glitter glue and a thrash metal soundtrack.

These stories are sad and hopeful, entertaining and fun. Believable? Once you permit Richard Van Camp to redefine the world, yes.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reader's Diary #759- Eden Robinson: Minnows

"Minnows" by Eden Robinson, is another depressing tale of family dysfunction. My second such story of the past 2 weeks. Unlike last week's tale by Stephen Crane, however, this one at least has action enough to keep it interesting.

"Minnows" is a story of a mother being paid yet another visit by a daughter who lately only returns to abuse and rob her. Things now take an even more serious turn as the daughter pulls a gun.

What has led to such an ugly scene? The truth is never totally revealed, as the narrator is somewhat unreliable, but enough is said that the scene before the reader at present isn't exactly surprising. In one paragraph the narrator describes how she and her husband would physically abuse one another but never laid a hand on their two daughters. Yet just a page later she recalls beating her 16 year old daughter with a slipper upon hearing that the daughter was pregnant.

It's a sad tale, from beginning to end. It's not entirely a "blame the parent for the actions of the child" but there seems to be a discord between the narrator's fatalistic view and the writer's.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Monday, September 05, 2011

Reader's Diary #758- Stephen Crane: A Dark Brown Dog

I'm trying my best not to call Stephen Crane's "A Dark Brown Dog" depressing and pointless. I'll stick with the depressing for now, but I can't believe any story is truly pointless. An author can only create with intent, right?

"A Dark Brown Dog" is about a boy and a dog who mutually adopt one another. The boy first encounters the dog walking down the sidewalk with a short rope attached to its neck. It seems evident early on that the dog has learned to be submissive, and one might even go as so far as to conclude that it must have been previously abused. Unfortunately, it seems as if that's the dog fate as things don't seem to get a whole lot better with the boy and his family. Maybe it does somewhat for the boy, giving him some purpose, but if the boy ever comes to appreciate that is left unsaid. Early on I suspected that Crane was trying to show the value of resiliency, but a tragic ending dispels that theory. Maybe his message is simply that life sucks.

I was somewhat reminded of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, with the dog's loyalty being a rough equivalent of the tree's unconditional love. I really despise that story but I know a lot of people would disagree with me. Those people might appreciate Crane's "A Dark Brown Dog."

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Guest Post- Judi Witzig's review of The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

(Note from John: Judi is a Canadian Book Challenge participant who has not yet set up a blog for reviews. I am happily posting her review of her challenge reads here in the meantime.)

[Note to fellow readers – I believe this to be an eligible entry as Tom Rachman (like Malcolm Gladwell) grew up in Canada and graduated from the University of Toronto.]

The Imperfectionists follows the twists and turns of the various lives of journalists and the publisher of an English language newspaper in Rome. The individual stories provide personal connections into both the lives of the journalists as well as the struggles of the newspaper. Each chapter, titled as a newspaper column headline, expands the reader’s understanding of the contributing journalist or staff person, as well as the connections among the various contributing authors. Initially I was at sea with the connections or how these individuals hung together, but by the third chapter, I was fully enmeshed in the story.

This is a book of individual loves, desires and struggles as lives are lived. Whether it is the disintegrating marriage of Lloyd the newspaper’s Paris stringer and his wife Eileen, or the phoenix-like rise of the obituary writer Arthur Gopal whose life takes new directions and his strengths as a writer and the master of the newspaper office politics grow after the unexpected death of his daughter; each character adds to the reader’s overall awareness of the challenges of publishing a daily newspaper over the course of decades. The individual romances of Hardy Benjamin the business writer, Ruby Zaga the copy editor and Abbey Pinnola the Chief Financial Officer of the paper intertwine around each other and the writing of the newspapers. Each character comes surprisingly fully to life. Tom Rachman has well captured the angst of love, loveless-ness, and usury that can accompany relationships and sex these days. The chapters of publishers’ loves and losses help to round out the picture both of the newspaper and the journalists.

I enjoyed the book and cannot help but reiterate adjectives from various international book reviews which call it “spectacular, magnificent and beguiling. “ My confusion of where the story was going after the first two chapters fell away as the bigger picture became more apparent. Reading this book was akin to dipping into the moving current of a river, coming to different bends, rocks and snags along the way - well written, and well enjoyed.

Guest Post- Judi Witzig's review of Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

(Note from John: Judi is a Canadian Book Challenge participant who has not yet set up a blog for reviews. I am happily posting her review of her challenge reads here in the meantime.)

I come four years late to the party in reading The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill but find it no less compelling today than it was when first released. I am impressed with the ease in which a man writes his narrator’s voice as that of a woman. I found it believable. Even more, I am impressed with the gradual evolution of that voice as it ages with time, trials and experiences. I was particularly struck by the resonance with which the various locations are described.

Hill’s descriptions of the numerous settings became characters in themselves. Descriptions of walking in the coffle, yoked and shackled to the coast stepping in and around the discarded dead, brings the setting alive as much as the misery of the captured. The stink of the slave ships was almost palpable as I read. Further descriptions really captured my imagination, the smells and the surroundings of the indigo vats in South Carolina, and it’s counter point with the Aminata’s time in Mamed’s or Georgia’s quarters. Charles Town, complete to the details of the horse manure on the street and its overwhelming bustle and business compared to life on the plantation again, marked a different pace to Aminata’s life. Hill’s emphasis on the tactile sense of new locations really brought home the feel of colonial New York and Canvass Town or Nova Scotia and Shelbourne particularly the descriptions to keep out the cold again became characters in the narration. The Sierra Leone descriptions felt more tentative, but the her return to Bance Island and the walk to return to her African home brought the descriptions back to life for me.

I was struck by the separate nature of Aminata’s relations with white folks and the Negros through the story. While distinct – each is given a detail that brings the relationship to life for me as a reader. I particularly liked her use of memories of her parents and her childhood in Africa to ground her and give her the inner strength to make it through the next ordeal or experience. I further enjoyed Aminata’s relationship to religion throughout the book. I liked the way the experience of various religions kept reappearing - providing sips of nourishment like the broth or rum used to bring her back from the fevers and aches she lived through. I didn’t believe the re-uniting with her daughter at the end of her days in that day and age. I found it too Hollywood for my tastes. I did enjoy her comparisons of her time telling her story as a djeli in the interior of Sierra Leone with that of telling her story before the parliamentary committee.

Book of Negroes is an excellent read, one that is well worth re-reading.

5th annual Canadian Book Challenge- 2nd update

Wow! Productive month last month, eh? You read and reviewed over a hundred books read in August! Nice job. Check out the great selection including a bunch of Robert Munsch books, a recent Giller Prize winner, a book on Obama's summer reading list, and many more! Over 100 in fact.

Last month I asked people to come up with a Top 10 list of recommended reads by province or territory and the result is a fantastic resource for those people wanting to read their way off the country. Check out the lists for every province and territory except New Brunswick, Quebec, British Columbia and the Yukon. (If you can create a list for either of those 4, please do so!) In the meantime, all those who did recommend a top ten list had their names entered in for a wonderful prize donated by Breakwater Books. The randomly selected winner* is...
Medea! That works out pretty well actually seeing as she's living in Japan and I can't imagine it's very easy to get Canadian books there. Now if I can only get them to her before the challenge is over! In any case, a hearty congratulations to Medea who will be receiving:

1. Double Talk- Patrick Warner
2. Island Maid: Voices of Outport Women- Rhonda Pelley (text), Sheilagh O'Leary (Photography)

3. Down by Jim Long's Stage- Al Pittman (Rhymes), Pam Hall (Illustrations)

(*For the random draws, I assign each entry with a number and use to select the winner).

Next month's prize is inspired by ABMs. No, not automated banking machines, I'm talking autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs. I've read quite a few over the past couple of months and have not yet read a boring life. So, from Ronsdale Press comes this amazing prize pack:

1. Strongman: The Doug Hepburn Society- Tom Thurston

2. I Have My Mother's Eyes: A Holocaust Memoir Across Generations- Barbara Ruth Bluman

Now, how do you win these books? In the comments below, suggest a Canadian person alive or dead, of whom you'd like to read an autobiography, biography, or memoir. Ooops, there's a few catches. First, it can't have already been published. So that means autobiographies of dead people are out. It also means that if you see someone else suggest Justin Bieber, you can play defensively and call them out in the comments- "sorry, Justin Bieber already has a published memoir." For all those who leave a suggested Canadian ABM in the comments, you will have your name automatically entered in the Ronsdale Prize Pack. This contest is only open to Canadian Book Challenge participants, runs for the whole month of September, and the winner will be announced here on October 1st.

And don't forget to keep reading and reviewing Canadian books in September. Share your links at the round-up post here. (Link will be published momentarily.)