Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category
I’ve been working my way through Mary Janigan’s new book, Let the Eastern Bastards Freeze in the Dark (Knopf, $32). Janigan, a journalist-turned-historian, traces western alienation back to its pre-Confederation beginnings. Although occasionally enlivened by stirring tales of immigrants battling the elements and ill-fortune on the cold, hard prairie, the narrative focuses on inter-provincial infighting, mainly through descriptions of meetings and paraphrased letters whose authors are really, really pissed off. In other words, Janigan’s book offers implicit support for the well established perception that Canadian history is a bore. Worse than that: it promotes a depressing theme to the effect that we are essentially a federation of jealous neighbours, incessantly whining that the other guys are getting more than their share. So far, only Louis Riel comes across with a scintilla of nobility, in his case it’s marred by bad judgment (not to mention the voice of God). I can only hope it gets better. I’ll keep plugging away.
The Globe and Mail‘s Saturday book section continues to mystify. What exactly is its intended constituency? Why is it the way it is? Week in and week out, it resembles nothing so much as the sad provincial simulacrum of a distant, much envied metropolitan journal. Admittedly, the identity of the great sun around which it traces its tiny arc is not always clear: doubtless it has in mind either the Times of New York or the Times of London, but the G&M seems unable to decide which star’s blazing light to oh-so-feebly reflect. This week, at least, the more venerable star has triumphed.
The Globe‘s lead review is given over to Johnson’s Life of London by Boris Johnson, mayor of that city, and an undoubted character. The reviewer is one Ashley Prime, identified as Deputy Consul-General of the British Consulate-General in Toronto – “and a native Londoner.” So: a British book by a British writer, reviewed by a temporarily transplanted British diplomat. And this is how Canada’s purported paper of record serves its constituency? Gosh, ma! We might almost be sitting in London reading a real newspaper!
And there, on the same page of the book section with adorable, mop-haired Boris, sits a tiny two-sentence review by H.J. Kirchhoff of Sheila Heti’s new novel, How Should a Person Be? The second sentence is particularly mystifying. Kirchhoff writes: “Heti’s book is creating enormous buzz in Canada and abroad.”
Absolutely no indication is offered by the G&M as to why, in its view, the buzz has erupted. No opinion on whether we should regard this “enormous buzz” with approval or detestation. There’s something a bit sniffy in the phrasing though. Is the implication that we’ve become so used to Canadian novelists generating buzz that the Globe can look on with condescending indifference when others make a fuss? Or is it, perhaps, beneath the dignity of the Globe to get caught up in the conversation? Heti is not, after all, the mayor of London.
I’m not even going to get into the fact that a full page in the four-page book section is devoted to publication of another of L.M. Montgomery’s journals. (Can you bear the excitement?) If I were Sheila Heti, I’d be pissed.
He’ll talk to just about anybody. He has interviewed doctors who worked among the Montagnards in the Central Highlands. He has interviewed pilots who flew secret missions for the CIA. He has interviewed the helicopter jockeys who gave Nixon his last ride from the White House to San Clemente. He has interviewed Pat Sajak, the “Wheel of Fortune” MC, who turns out to have been a real-life counterpart of the Robin Williams character in the film, Good Morning, Vietnam! He has interviewed Vietnamese veterans who fought for the communists. He has even interviewed some of the Canadians – by his conservative estimate there were ten thousand of them – who fought in the war for Uncle Sam.
Yablonka also has sought the company of the reporters and photographers who covered the war. Perhaps he feels a bond with them because he’s a journalist and photographer himself. In his conversations with Nick Ut and Catherine Leroy, for example, the reader senses affection as well as respect.
Nick Ut’s story is a dramatic one. His brother was on assignment for the Saigon bureau of the Associated Press when he was killed in a firefight in the Mekong Delta. His sister-in-law urged Horst Faas, the AP photo chief, to hire Nick in her husband’s place: the family desperately needed the income. Faas balked at the idea. Nick was in his mid-teens, too young to be exposed to the risks assumed by reporters. Faas did, however, agree to employ the boy in the darkroom – where he thrived. Read the rest of this entry »
In Almost There,* Curtis Gillespie is working partly in a genre that stems from a particular strain of newspaper writing. I associate it most strongly with the late Gary Lautens, whose decades-long stint as a columnist with the Toronto Star must have established some kind of record. It was carried on for a while in the same newspaper by Linwood Barclay before he became a famously accomplished writer of detective novels. Stuart McLean’s stories about the adventures of Dave and Morley share some of the genre’s main features—including the tight cast of characters and the everyday nature of the plots—but the columns written by Lautens and Barclay were based firmly on real-life incidents. McLean’s stories are pure fiction.
At their best, too, the newspaper columns had an edge to them, while McLean’s tales tend to be treacly.
In the Lautens newspaper genre, the narrator-protagonist typically is a middle-aged man—the columnist—and the main characters are members of his immediate family. He’s a bit of a doofus but good-hearted. His spouse is smart, practical and long-suffering. Their kids get up to all kinds of hijinks, but nothing that can’t be sorted out with help from mom, a friend or a local elder. It is essential, however, that the dad be flawed: if he can’t laugh at himself (and invite the reader to join in his laughter) then the column gets swamped by unendurable smugness. There’s almost nothing more irritating than someone else’s adorable family. Read the rest of this entry »
She always has a notepad in front of her. She is always on the job.
It might easily be mistaken for an affectation. Once I was in a roomful of journalists in a hotel conference centre, when a sudden loud bang caused another journalist—not Wong—to dash from the room to investigate. She returned a minute later and explained to the room at large that she couldn’t help herself: she was just a born newshound. Now that was an affectation. But for Wong, taking notes is the habit of a lifetime. Even when she is talking to a professional colleague, she is likely to have a pencil in her hand, a notepad on the table.
She took notes when her newspaper sent her to investigate a shooting at a college in Montreal. When she wrote the story, which included an aside about how other, similar shootings had been committed by recent immigrants to Quebec, she kept notes about who at the newspaper she worked for had read and approved her copy. In the article about the shooting, she took a swipe at the separatists whose disdain for those who were not pur laine, or old Quebec stock, might have made immigrants like the shooter feel like outsiders. The remark was accurate, although politically unwise, and her editor approved it. And when the shit hit the fan, when the politicians rose up in their various legislatures righteously to condemn the comment, her editor bailed on her, even publishing an editorial in which he said the remark should never have been printed. Wong’s notes recorded exactly what he told her, and when.
Wong had long been regarded as a singularly robust reporter; indeed, she thought of herself as “tough cookie.” She survived difficult conditions in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution and then returned to China as a foreign correspondent. She became famous for her column, “Lunch with Jan Wong,” in which she routinely exposed the pretensions of Canada’s eminent citizens. She survived even the backbiting in her own competitive profession. But still, the reaction to her story about the Montreal shooting, starting with her own paper’s denunciation, came to her as a shock. Read the rest of this entry »
Vincent Lam, following the success of the story collection, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, has placed his first novel in reputedly the most Chinese of cities (but not in China) in a time of war and upheaval. The novel’s dramatic backdrop draws on Lam’s family history and on other sources, including contemporary travelers’ tales.
In the mid-1950s, a French traveler who wanted to write about the traditional Chinese way of life was advised to go, not to China, but to Vietnam. Specifically he was directed to Saigon’s twin city, Cholon. China was undergoing revolutionary upheaval under Mao Zedong, but the two-hundred-year-old Chinese community in Cholon had resisted change. It was, as the Frenchman wrote, a kind of “cultural island,” which had “retired within itself and, except for business dealings, [remained] utterly indifferent to the rest of the world.”
So the traveler, Gontran de Poncins,* booked passage on a tramp steamer that made stops in Djibouti, Colombo and Singapore, before it sailed up the Saigon River. On disembarking, he was greeted by the expatriate who had undertaken to be his guide and it was the guide who arranged for him to take a long-term room at the Sun Wah hotel in Cholon. There, as the only Westerner amid the indigenous throng, de Poncins was obliged to reconsider his preconceived notions of the Chinese character.
He had thought of the Chinese as reserved, discreet and—inevitably—inscrutable. What he found instead was a cheerful, noisy, uninhibited and intrusive society that seethed and swirled around him in a kind of orderly chaos. Certain conventions took some getting used to. He was expected to leave the door of his room open, for example, whenever he was in residence. To close it was to exhibit a deplorably antisocial tendency. By keeping it open, however, he was fully exposed to the comings and goings in the lobby, which, it turned out, blended seamlessly with the street. Men arrived at all hours to engage in games of mah jong, while women exchanged gossip in gaggles and their children ran half-naked and unhindered around them. Men urinated in a hole in the floor, vendors offered their wares from door to door and prostitutes strode unembarrassed behind the boys who had been sent to fetch them. De Poncins, as an intrepid and inquisitive explorer, was gratified to discover a world that was utterly foreign to him. Read the rest of this entry »
Nora Young, The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99)
Review copy supplied by publisher
A radio program such as CBC Radio’s “Spark,” which bills itself as “an ongoing conversation about technology and culture,” may hope to get across about three ideas in its half-hour time slot. That’s ten minutes for each idea. To get things going, the host, in this case Nora Young, may lay out the idea straight up. She might remark, for example, that people increasingly use online media to track aspects of their daily behavior. She might say something like, “Self-tracking is all the rage.” She’ll give a brief explanation of what she means by the phrase—something along the lines of keeping a detailed record of what we eat, how much we exercise, or how much time we spend on Facebook—before throwing in a personal anecdote. She might mention that she has been using a website, rescuetime.com, to monitor her own propensity to procrastinate when she should be working diligently. Then she’ll interview someone, perhaps the person who invented the website or a certified geek who uses it obsessively. They will agree that self-tracking is, indeed, a growing phenomenon and one that merits careful watching. Then she’ll move on to something else.
In a radio program, the host knows she’s competing for the listener’s attention. The people who populate radio land are quite likely to be preoccupied while the radio is on—cooking, cleaning, conversing with their partners or reading the paper. The host can’t reasonably expect to develop an argument in a linear fashion, citing cases and presenting evidence, bringing in conflicting views and then refuting them, gradually building towards a surprising but apparently irrefutable conclusion. She can’t do this because she knows most of her audience is only barely paying attention. At any moment they are quite likely to leave the room, answer the phone or, perish the thought, close their eyes and take a nap.
So the host deploys a range of devices to hold them. She is charming, sassy and self-deprecating. She invites listeners to think of her as a friend. (It’s rude, after all, to tune out while a friend is talking.) She does not require really close attention: she has just a single notion to convey in each ten-minute span. She states it plainly and then reiterates it in different ways, maybe bringing in music, sound effects and different voices. She broaches nothing that’s too challenging, at least, not all at once. She doesn’t want to make her friends feel stupid, after all. She makes it clear at the start of each ten-minute segment where she’s headed and, when she gets there, she says it again. That’s how it is with radio.
Books are different. Read the rest of this entry »
Steve Lillebuen, The Devil’s Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell’s Kill Room (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99)
Review copy supplied by publisher
Elliott Leyton has spent more time investigating murder than almost anybody. He has made a particular study of serial killers, but also has devoted years to examining what we might think of as ordinary murder, the kind that follows from a bar fight or domestic brawl. He has taken time, as well, to look at and think about the bloody mayhem that led to the slaughter of thousands in Rwanda.* Leyton’s findings might be discomfiting to some. He holds, in particular, that murderers—even serial killers—are not monsters, but ordinary people. They often are economically disadvantaged and socially marginalized, but they are nevertheless folks like the rest of us. We might pass them at the mall or stand beside them at the video store. They can be our workmates, neighbours, family or friends.
Now and then a murder is reported that seems to be truly exceptional, a crime so heinous, calculated and cruel that it belongs in a category of its own. These are the killings that make the front pages of newspapers and dominate television news broadcasts. These are the ones, above all, whose perpetrators strike us as inhuman. They put Leyton’s thesis to the test.
The murder of Johnny Altinger by Mark Twitchell in an Edmonton suburb in October 2008 promised to be one of the exceptions. There were indications that the crime was inspired by a television series about a serial killer. The murderer used the internet to stalk his victim. It even seemed possible that he had filmed the whole thing.
Steve Lillebuen has done a thorough job of investigating the crime in The Devil’s Cinema. He got first-rate cooperation from the officers investigating the case with the result that the book’s opening section reads like the best kind of police procedural. He followed the trial closely and does creditable work sussing out the stresses at work on the witnesses as well as the accused. And he got to know the murderer himself. Read the rest of this entry »
I was 187th on my library’s waiting list, but I finally got a hold of a copy of Esi Edugyan’s Giller Prize-winning novel, Half-Blood Blues (Thomas Allen, $24.95). I was warned by a couple of acquaintances who read it before me that they had found it hard going. They said the book’s most striking feature, the lyrical, semi-bogus patois spoken by its chief characters made the text either impenetrable or tedious. I was offered a prize (unspecified) if I made it past page 100.
Well, I did. I almost got mired a couple of times. And then, when I got into it, I still fast-forwarded through some longish patches. I admire what Edugyan has achieved linguistically—it’s brilliant, really. Ordinary words that have been given new meanings blend seamlessly into words with poetic resonance, so Jack-booted Nazis are “boots,” getting about on foot is “ankling,” a ladies’ man is, of all things, a “cake-eater,” and rotgut is “the czech” (Czechoslovakian hooch?). Guys seem to be “gates,” but I may be missing the allusion; “gates” may also be a synonym for “musicians,” darned if I know why. Considerable thought has gone into all this and the narration achieves a rhythmic persuasiveness. It does go on, though.
The structure involves flash-forwards and reverses: the opening is close, chronologically, to the end. There’s a bit of manipulation involved in this: the novel’s tension derives partly from a rather arbitrary parcelling out of essential information. Novelists are allowed, of course: there’s an element of trickery in the way any good story is told. The question is how smoothly the gimmicks slide past the reader and whether or not he or she minds. I sort of did.
What makes it work, besides the language and the jumps in time, are the central characters. The narrator, Sid Griffiths, his long-time friend, Chip Jones, and the phenomenally gifted trumpet player, Hieronymus “the kid” Falk, form a close-knit triumvirate within a religiously and racially mixed jazz band in pre-war Berlin: one member is Jewish, three or four are German, and some are either of mixed racial heritage or Black. The group gradually is driven apart by the psychological stresses and physical threats that accompany the rise of the Nazis and the start of the European war. There are tensions between the three as well as within the larger group and against the world. They are, in some cases, jealous of one another’s talent and sexually competitive. Sometimes they simply exasperate one another. Sid plays the brotherly straight man both to Chip, who’s a bit of a trickster, and to Hiero, who suffers from the frailties of genius. Character flaws lead to mistakes, which, in a dangerous time can be fatal. Edugyan handles these possibilities shrewdly and to devastating effect.
Louis Armstrong makes a cameo appearance. I was puzzled because he’s described repeatedly as being old. Sid notices the wear-and-tear the years have taken: “His mouth was shocking. He done wrecked his chops from the pressure of hitting all them high notes over the years. His bottom lip hung slightly open, like a drawer of red velvets.” Trumpet-playing did wreck Armstrong’s lips: by the 1960s, he was singing rather than playing the horn. But he makes his appearance in the novel in 1939 when he was thirty-eight. Edugyan has done her research, I know, but Sid’s observation seems premature.
Possible anachronisms aside, the story leads to an improbably cinematic conclusion, which I won’t spoil, but it struck me as silly: shades of heart of darkness with some dime-store philosophy thrown in. Still, there’s s no denying the brilliance of Edugyan’s achievement, the skill with which she combines language, plot and characterization to create a convincing world are attested by all those nominations and prizes. It’s pretty great.
So why do I feel like claiming that (unspecified) prize I was offered for making it through to the end?
William Marsden, Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change (Knopf, $29.95)
Wine score: 88 / Pennies per page: 9.2 / Review copy from library
There should be a prize for publishers who take on books like this, books that people should read because they’re important, but no one wants to read because they’re so damned depressing. Bad-news books constitute a singularly noble and unrewarding branch of the book business. Without a doubt, more get pulped than sold. An unhappy thought for both their publishers and authors.
Fools Rule is not the best of the genre. It’s not comparable to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, both of which avoided by their passionate conviction and their writer’s skill the fate of so many other worthy, alarm-sounding, environmental narratives. Marsden is more angry than eloquent and both his tone and his message slide in and out of focus. First-class reporting from the disastrous UN conference on climate change at Copenhagen and its sequel in Cancun a year later are used to bookend the tale of his adventures with scientists in the Arctic. The science is anything but irrelevant but his attempts to explicate it drain the book of energy. His rage is dispersed among a number of targets and there’s nothing really hopeful or constructive for the reader to latch onto. There is no single villain. There is no workable plan. Read the rest of this entry »
Jann Arden, Falling Backwards: A Memoir (Vintage, $21)
Wine score: 92 / Pennies per page 7.7 / Review copy from publisher
Jann Arden’s memoir, Falling Backwards, is funny, earthy and unswervingly honest. The singer-songwriter with the soaring voice tells a story that is tragic and yet hopeful, comic and obviously true. Now available in paperback, it is sui generis, one of a kind.
Arden’s father worked long days and then drank through the nights. He was either absent or an oppressive presence. Her mother endured his neglect and abuse for years and somehow kept the kids clothed and fed, though she wasn’t much of a cook. Whatever went into the crockpot in the morning came out in the evening tasting much the like the previous day’s stew. She had to find a job that took her away from home and, when they were small, the children went more or less feral. Arden became a tomboy.
She bonded with two boys from a neighbouring farm. Together they killed innumerable gophers and magpies. They played a game called “put Dicky in the dryer” involving another boy, not quite right in the head, who was unable to defend himself. “It seemed like Dicky was in there for an entire fluff cycle,” Arden writes, “but it was only a few seconds. He came out a bit stunned.” On hot summer days, they walked by themselves to a swimming pool in Calgary, which was miles away, and then walked home again, exhausted. Or they took long, improbable rides on a patient Clydesdale called Snoopy, roaming across wheat fields and paddling across ponds, the three of them bobbing like corks in the water above the horse’s back. Read the rest of this entry »
Daniel G. Amen, M.D., Use Your Brain to Change Your Age: Secrets to Look, Feel and Think Younger Every Day (Crown, $28)
Wine score: 86 / Pennies per page: 7.5 / Review copy from publisher
An author I was working with at Penguin suggested that Daniel G. Amen might be willing to write a blurb for her book. She, too, was in the counselling business and must have come across him at a conference of some kind. I fired off a query via Amen’s website and Amen responded, as I remember, courteously and promptly, to say he was embarking on some kind of tour and doubted he would be able to read the manuscript in time to meet our deadline. He sounded sincere. A number of others in the same business, whose names my author had supplied, came through with fulsome endorsements, so Amen’s unavailability wasn’t crucial. Our blurb-gathering campaign left me with the impression that (a) these gurus on the personal improvement circuit are generous when it comes to reaching out and helping one another, and (b) my author was known and well-liked. Also (c) these guys keep themselves busy.
Certainly, Daniel G. Amen is busy. He has a psychiatric practice linked to the University of California, runs a number of eponymous clinics, makes numerous media appearances, speaks incessantly at conferences and writes bestselling books with similar-sounding titles. And, in common with many others who make a living by offering advice, he has a gimmick. Read the rest of this entry »