In this, our thirteenth annual column of contemporary adult titles that may be of interest to strong teenage readers, we present a broad selection of Canadian material. As usual, the subject matter ranges widely, and we are pleased to offer a variety of genres and formats as well. Also as usual, we have made our choices on the basis of potential appeal to teen readers, excluding those books that focus exclusively on middle or old age, and casting around as widely as possible for different voices and stories. We never censor on the basis of language or content; we assume that good teen readers can simply stop reading if the material bothers them. Reviews from the previous twelve columns have been amalgamated into a single, indexed list, available online at http://www.ualberta.ca/~mmackey/adultbooklist2008.pdf. Thanks to the generosity of Resource Links and its editor Victoria Pennell, we will continue our practice of incorporating the new set of titles into that ongoing resource; the revised complete list will be posted online in the spring of 2009. In the meantime, enjoy the wealth of good reading cited here.
The Gum ThiefToronto: Random House Canada, 2007. Hdbk. 275p. 978-0-307-34628-4
Bethany works in Staples, the office supplies superstore. So does Roger, who is old enough to have gone to school with Bethany's mother DeeDee. For the most part, these three characters are the unlikely narrators of Douglas Coupland's unlikely novel. Roger is a secret novelist and this book also includes extensive extracts from Glove Pond, his fiction. Coupland is pitch-perfect and shrewd, as usual, on the discrepancies between the vacuous language of Staples commerce-speak and the real anguish and despair of Roger, Bethany and DeeDee. Bethany is the youngest of the three but her life has been shadowed by far too many deaths, and she expresses herself as a Goth; one virtue of Staples as an employer is that they let her wear her black lipstick. Roger's life is adrift; he drinks too much and his job at Staples marks him as a middle-aged loser. The story is told in their letters to each other, sparked when Bethany discovers Roger's diary in the staff lounge and learns he is practising being a writer by imagining himself as writing from within her persona.
In some ways, the voices merge, and the end of the story does not rule out the idea that Roger has created all of it. Within the terms of the correspondence, I was never unclear about which character was writing at any given time, but the three are clearly on the same side against the pressures of the world they live in ( represented by google, iPods, advertising patter, sales pitches, and so forth), and the main contrast lies between them and their setting. The artificiality of the commercial world is strongly observed and the struggles of the characters within this world are poignant. This book will speak to many young readers. MM
The Angel RiotsToronto: Penguin, 2008. Pbk. 275p. 978-0-14-305512-9.
The Angel Riots is the story of an indie rock collective experiencing its first taste of heady fame. The story is told from the perspective of two of the band members. Jim is an 18-year-old Saskatchewan girl (her name was accidentally switched with her twin brother's on their birth certificates) who has recently arrived in Montreal to study violin at McGill. A musical genius, she is the youngest band member in terms of age, but probably the oldest in terms of having lived through some hard times. Jim stands at a remove from the other band members, struggling with her grief over some traumatic events involving her twin brother, which are gradually revealed. Rize, the other character whose perspective we see, is a gifted trombonist who struggles with a mental illness and with his tendency to be eclipsed by his childhood best friend and fellow band member Jules. When the Riots go on their first American tour, they achieve success beyond their wildest dreams, but at the same time, relationships between the band members begin to fray. Jules and his wife Margo have trouble keeping their marriage together; Rize gets too heavily into drugs; and Jim seems to be the only one who realizes that Kellogg, the band's manager, may not be as benevolent as he seems. The novel is an achingly complex tangle of human relationships, and its depiction of the touring musician's life feels authentically unglamorous. HG
Late Nights on Air Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007. Hdbk. 364 p. 978-0-7710-3811-2
This absorbing story is set in a very particular time and place: Yellowknife in 1975. The characters work in a small radio station and the book is alive to the meanings of sound in all its different manifestations. In the background, we are aware of the hearings (an apt word in this context) of the Berger inquiry into the laying of a gas pipeline across the Arctic. In the foreground, we read of the women and men who put the radio station on the air: their shifting awareness of each other, their loves and lusts and quarrels and jealousies. The story begins with the arrival of Dido Paris whose beauty and personality affect every other character, and traces the ripple effects through a small and inward-looking community. Almost everybody in this setting has moved in from somewhere else, and their pasts continue to play a part in their new lives. The cast of characters ranges broadly in age, but because of the emphasis on new beginnings, in many ways this is a story of youth. But it is set in a country with its own ancient history and geography, and the contrast is striking. The story breaks out of the confines of the station when four characters decide to make an epic canoe trip into the wilderness, challenging the geography, attempting to reincarnate a particular episode of history. The outcome is memorable and provides an emotional climax to a memorable book. MM
B. Wright, Richard
October Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2007. Hdbk. 241p. 978-0-00-200689-7
Wright’s latest novel is an appealing meditation on adolescence, old age and mortality told with the author’s characteristic spare writing style and superb characterization. The story revolves around the life of James Hillyer. At the start of the novel he’s a retired professor visiting his sick daughter in England and reflecting on his past life. A chance encounter with Gabriel Fontaine, an old friend from his youth brings back memories of a particularly significant summer in Quebec six decades earlier when the two were rivals for the affections of a young girl. At that time, Gabriel was a handicapped young man who was confined to a wheelchair but had the ability to charm everyone he met with his good looks, charisma and wealth. Now he has a terminal disease and is eager to renew his acquaintance with James and involve him in his plans for the immediate future. While the premise of the book sounds rather grim and focused on old age and death, much of the book revolves around the memorable summer the two protagonists spent in Quebec as adolescents, dreaming of sex and eager to develop a relationship with the chambermaid Odette. The fraught friendship between the two adolescent boys and their rivalry in trying to gain Odette’s affections set the stage for their later relationship. Wright handles the dual narratives skillfully and the book is absorbing enough to appeal to readers of all ages. IJ
The View from Castle RockToronto: Penguin Canada, 2006. Pbk. 349p. 978-0-14-305563-1.
A new book by Alice Munro is always cause for celebration, and this collection of stories offers additional delight to readers who want to know more about Munro herself. Munro traces the roots of her Laidlaw ancestors from Scotland in the 1700s, weaving narratives of their lives from tombstones, village records, conversations with local people, and other available records. Aided in her research by a distant relative, the Scottish author James Hogg, she is pleased to discover her family has produced a writer in each generation. The stories she creates of these ancestors are partly her imaginings and partly their own words, resulting in a vivid cast of characters and rich depiction of lives. Her historical account begins in Scotland in the early 1700s and continues with the emigrants who make the arduous voyage to Canada in 1818, and the pioneers who struggle to carve out livelihoods in a harsh land. The stories circle more tightly as she moves into the recent past to her parents’ lives and finally to first-person narration of her own life. There are memorable people and events: the drunken father who mistakenly identifies the Fife coast as America to his young son, the autocratic patriarch who makes the sea voyage with his family, and the seeming theft of a baby as the family travels, among others.
As fans of Alice Munro would expect, these stories dance delicately on the edges of memoir, fiction, and imagination. In her foreword, Munro emphasizes that these are stories—imagined, shaped, and following their own design rather than historical fact. She notes, “You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on” (foreword). It seems fitting that her ancestors hail from the Borderlands of Scotland, as Munro always travels in borderlands in her writing. In weaving together fact and fiction in these stories, she creates a tapestry of richly imagined people, places, and events. JKM
The Toss of a Lemon Toronto: Random House Canada, 2008. Hdbk. 616p. 978-0307356321
The Toss of a Lemon is the debut novel by short story writer and playwright, Padma Viswanathan. It chronicles four generations of a Brahmin family through sixty years of India's turbulent colonial and postcolonial history.
At the centre of the novel is Sivakami, a child bride widowed by the age of eighteen and left with two children. For the rest of her life, Sivakami adheres strictly to the dictates of her caste and her religion, eating food prepared only by her own hands and resisting all human touch, save that of her daughter and son, and even that only after sundown. Sivakami's daughter, Thangam, and son, Varium, take very different paths in their own adult lives and the clash between tradition and modernity becomes the tension at the heart of the story. Sivakami's deep faith in her religion and her caste place her at odds with Varium, who rejects the old ways in favour of rationality over superstition and equality over hierarchy. The conflict within Sivakami's household is writ large in the history of a nation.
While this is a long novel, its length is necessary to explore the breadth and depth of the story it contains. Viswanathan was inspired by stories told to her by her own grandmother in Canada and the sense that a family's past is brought to life is strong in this powerful book. JM
De Sa, Anthony
Barnacle Love Toronto: Doubleday, 2008. Hdbk. 216p. 978-0-385-66436-3
Barnacle Love is a series of ten linked short stories divided into two parts that beautifully capture the trials and tribulations of an immigrant family.
In the first half we are introduced to twenty-year old Manuel Rebelo who goes to sea to escape his domineering mother and their small Portuguese village, gets washed up on the shores of Newfoundland and decides to start a new life in Canada. He goes back to his village to marry the girl his mother chose for him, but returns to Toronto with a different wife and a dream to succeed. The second half is told by his teenage son, Antonio, about his relationship with his alcoholic father, and growing up in the seventies in Toronto's Little Portugal. His dysfunctional family is rife with tensions between the new and old world cultures but, with his friends, he finds escape by biking through the streets of their neighbourhood.
Although this is a story of the ups and downs of the Rebelo family, it has its humorous moments and is also a poignant coming-of-age story. MH
The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and Son, Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2007. Hdbk. 247p. 978-0-88762-285-4.
A lot of teens think of dropping out of school at some point, but very few of them do so with the support of their parents. David Gilmour, the Toronto writer and film critic, realized that his 16-year-old son Jesse hated school. Despite being a bright kid, Jesse's grades were skidding towards failure, and no intervention on the part of his parents (transferring him to a private school, micromanaging his homework) seemed to help. Realizing that school is turning his honest, likeable son into a liar and a sneak who hides his homework assignments and then claims he has no more work to do, David allows Jesse to drop out of school, on one condition: Jesse must watch three movies a week, of David's choosing, and discuss them with his father.
What follows is a three-year tour through world cinema, both good and bad, and a profound evolution in the relationship between father and son. At a time when many teenage boys are doing their utmost to shut out their parents, Gilmour's "film club" allows him a window into his son's life and thoughts. We also see Jesse develop from an insecure and apathetic teen into a bright and confident young man. HG
The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor Toronto: Random House, 2007. Pbk. 432p. 978-0-679-31405-9
In The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor, well known journalist Sally Armstrong re-creates the life Charlotte Taylor, her great-great-great grandmother, who was one of the earliest settlers of New Brunswick. Drawing on historical fact and family records, Sally Armstrong tells the story of this courageous and fascinating woman who in 1775 escaped from her upper class English family and sailed to Jamaica with her lover, the family’s butler. When they reached their destination, Charlotte found herself alone, after her lover’s death from yellow fever, and pregnant. Ever resourceful, Charlotte aligned herself with a British commodore and continued her journey by sailing north with him to Baie des Chaleurs, in what is now New Brunswick. Once there, Charlotte found refuge with the Mi’kmaq people who taught her how to survive on the harsh, unforgiving land. Charlotte Taylor was witness to the early history of eastern Canada from the expulsion of the Acadians to the privateers of the British-American War to the Loyalists, newly arriving from the United States. Against this larger backdrop of these historical events, Armstrong details Charlotte’s personal struggles as a wife and mother, working to clear the land and survive the ever present epidemics and conflicts that existed in this rough country. The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor weaves together fact and fiction to tell the story of this unique and memorable character. Readers will no doubt enjoy this fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable story. Highly recommended. JdG
Cloud of BoneToronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2007. Hdbk. 447p. 978-0-676-97938-1
This captivating novel tells the stories of three apparently unrelated characters whose narratives merge only in the final few pages of the book. The initial section recounts the feckless life of Kyle Holloway, a young man growing up in wartime St. John's in an atmosphere of amorality that is at times genuinely shocking. Retreating from the consequences of an unanticipated crime, he hides in a rocky cavern in the South Side Hills. It is here, sequestered near an old burial ground, that he hears the voice of the second character, the one whose story dominates this book. This speaker is Shanawdithit, notoriously "the last of the Beothuks," whose death at the age of 29 in 1829 is taken to mark the extinction of the first nation of Newfoundland. Her story, the central focus of the book, tells of the gradual destruction of her people. It is thematically appropriate that the character whose story concludes the book, Judith Muir, makes her first appearance investigating genocide in Rwanda. How the three stories finally weave together makes for a satisfying conclusion to a book that asks us to look very hard at what counts as morality. Nobody, of course, can now speak for the Beothuk, and placing historical and fictional characters alongside each other always raises questions; some readers will be offended by Morgan’s takeover of the indigenous voice. But she has certainly imagined herself into the final days of this beleaguered people with great intensity. I would have liked a more detailed and specific historical note than the one she provides at the end of the novel, but she does provide a list of sources, and I found it relatively straightforward to locate information that confirmed some of the main events in her story - though I was left wondering about many of the emotional elements of the plot. In any case, Morgan’s verdion of the sorrow, deprivation and bitterness of the last days of the Beothuk come across convincingly and compellingly in these p. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking novel. MM
ConceitToronto: Doubleday Canada, 2007. Hdbk. 402p. 978-0-385-66205-5
This richly detailed historical novel has as its protagonist Pegge Donne, one of several children of the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne. Much of the first part of the story details the teenage Pegge's nursing of her elderly and ill father. Sensing that his own death is near, he wishes to arrange suitable marriages for his daughters. But Pegge wishes to marry for love, as her own parents did. Unfortunately, the object of her desire, her father's young friend Izaak Walton, is hopelessly in love with Pegge's older sister Constance. Interspersed with her story is a first-person account by her mother, Ann, of the whirlwind romance with John Donne that estranged her from her family and caused a major scandal in London.
True historical fiction buffs will love this book. It's well researched and offers up rich historical detail on seventeenth-century England - everything from food preparation to fashion to medical treatment is on display here. However, some teens may find it hard going. Much is presented, but little is explained, so some knowledge of history is helpful. But advanced readers should be able to handle the wealth of detail. HG
J. Sawyer, Robert
RollbackNew York: Tom Doherty Associates/Tor, 2007. Pbk. 320p. 978-0-7653-4974-3
Set as far ahead as 2067 but firmly based in a recognizable Toronto, this story tells what happens to an elderly couple when only one of them makes the successful “rollback” to the physical age of 25 and starts to age all over again. True to its title, the book itself frequently “rolls back” – most often to the year of 2009 when scientist Sarah Halifax decodes a message from space that baffled all her peers and orchestrates the reply to be sent back to the alien intelligence that has contacted Earth from 18.8 light years away. In the natural order of things it takes more than 39 years for correspondence to be exchanged, and when the aliens’ response arrives, it is 2048 and Sarah is an old woman, not likely to live much longer. Rejuvenation in the form of a rollback is available but expensive. Sarah’s relationship to the aliens is so significant that she is offered the chance to become young again in order to continue her scientific work. She accepts only on condition that her husband Don should also be made young - but the process works only for Don.
Having set up this elaborate scenario, Sawyer works through its implications with care, all the way back to Don’s second round of middle age. A young man with the sensibilities of an old man and with many fond memories of the Toronto (and the CBC) of our own times, Don struggles with many intriguing complications. The book is an easy read but offers much food for thought. MM
de Lint, Charles
Promises to KeepBurton, MI.: Subterranean Press, 2007. Hdbk. 173p. 978-1-59606-126-2.
Jilly Coppercorn's early history has been hinted at in de Lint's previous novels and short stories featuring this character. In this moving and gripping story, Jilly's tale of childhood abuse, drug addiction and redemption deepen the connection to her for readers already familiar with her, as well as providing an accessible entry for readers meeting her for the first time. de Lint began exploring Jilly's pre-history as a short story but it quickly grew into this short, strong, and accessible novel, one that resonates with compassion for Jilly, and that explores the universal search for identity, hopes and dreams, and personal recovery. Jilly, at college in the 1970s, reconnects with an important friend from her youth. They meet at a night club where Jilly soon finds herself in another world, one of dead people and living dreams. In this world she can easily leave her painful memories behind but, as is characteristic of de Lint's writing, Jilly must make difficult choices regarding not only the future, but the person she chooses to be in the present. GdV
Ja, No, Man Toronto: Penguin, 2007. Pbk. 321p. 978-0143050445
Richard Poplak grew up in an affluent Johannesburg neighbourhood before emigrating with his family to Canada at the age of sixteen. This is his memoir of growing up in the bubble that was the world of the urban white child under apartheid. Poplak's account of his childhood is uproariously funny in many parts. He has an eye for the ridiculous, and nobody, from the family maid to his parents to the apartheid government, escapes his wit. However, beneath the humour (and very frequently exploding above it) is an unconcealed rage at how the apartheid system warped the white children raised in it. His account of watching Star Trek at a young age, and trying to process how a black woman (Uhura) could be a crew member on equal terms with Captain Kirk and the gang is both funny and sad (eventually, he resolves this puzzle by deciding that she must be an alien, like Spock). His story of veldskool, a mandatory outdoor school program that offered up equal doses of bad food, punishing forced marches, and political indoctrination by fanatical Afrikaner trek leaders, probably contains the raw ingredients for several lawsuits, had the experience taken place in Canada. When the teenage Richard dares to confess to some buddies that he thinks Whitney Houston is hot, he is ridiculed for weeks for being a "kaffir-lover." One senses that this memoir was Poplak's attempt to exorcise his childhood demons, but it also provides a valuable insight into a very different world from the one in which most Canadian teens are raised. HG
Shining at the Bottom of the Sea Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007. Hdbk. 254p. 978-0-670-00617-9
This book is not for every reader, but for those interested in the institution of literature it makes for an intriguing read. Marche has invented a Caribbean island named Sanjania and this book represents an anthology of Sanjanian writing from its early days to the present. He frames each story with a careful account of its provenance, and concludes the book with some critical discussion of some of the pieces included. Interestingly, there is no poetry and references to the island's drama are second-hand. Interestingly also, the critical commentary is largely institution-bound; there are no diasporic blogs or critical online discussion groups - and certainly no fan fiction.
The stories themselves are appealing, although the early ones call for some reader perseverence in the face of old language patterns. Marche has created his pastiche with skill and care. The premise does sound a bit daunting but the book is highly readable. MM
Tales from the Farm: Essex County Vol.1 Atlanta: Top Shelf Productions, 2007. Pbk. Unpaginated. 978-1-891830-88-4
Jeff Lemire's first graphic novel in his Essex County trilogy evokes a memoir-style feeling in this story of ten-year-old Lester who after the death of his mother must live with his uncle Ken. It is also the story of Lester's friendship with retired hockey player, Jimmy Lebeuf. Although a fictional account of the farm family and their search for heroes, stability, identity, and reliable relationships, the setting and characters are extremely authentic and familiar. The story unfolds through four seasons with the weather and the empty landscape often having starring roles as major characters. The deliberate pacing of farm life allows readers to slow down and pay attention to both the storyline and their own childhood memories that are sure to surface. The black and white illustrations are stark, simple and filled with expressive emotion. Highly recommended. GdV
Ghost Stories: Essex County Vol.2. Atlanta: Top Shelf Productions, 2007. Pbk. Unpaginated. 978-1-891830-94-5
Historical Canadian hockey, relationships between brothers, and farm life are the major themes of this second volume of the memoir-like story of Lou and Vince Lebeuf spanning over sixty years. The now elderly older brother Lou revisits his memories of leaving the farm for Toronto, sharing his life of hockey and the Maple Leafs with his larger brother Vince, his love interest in Vince's wife, and his regrets as he is forced to leave the farm he finally managed to make his home once more. The frustrations of the elderly coming to terms with the aging process plays a large role in this tale as well.
The simple stark evocative illustrations make Lou's weaving in and out of his memories a shared journey for the reader, granting a glimpse into the tortures and joys of relationships and hasty decisions. There is a great deal of pain here, but the well told story and the pacing of the panels allow for celebration as well. The reader will also absorb background on Canadian hockey in the 1950s. Lou is the great uncle of hockey player Jimmy Lebeuf who appears in the first volume of this trilogy. Highly recommended. GdV
White Rapids Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2007. Pbk. 156p. 978-1897299241
This book defies genre categorization. It is in graphic format but it is not exactly a novel. It tells the story of a company town, built in northern Quebec to house the workers of a hydro-power plant. Plant and village were inaugurated in 1934 and by 1948, as the baby boom got well underway, the population stood at 240, half French and half English. Until 1950, there was no road connection to the south and everything came in by rail. The village lasted only a few decades; the company automated the plant processes and began to close the town in 1969.
It sounds like a simple, even primitive story of the life of a White community in the Canadian north, but the pictures create a completely different view of life in White Rapids. Drawing on Art Deco and fifties Modernist design, Blanchet provides the image of a sophisticated rural idyll with the best of urban life available through the radio and the imported movies. Using a very restricted palette of white, orange and a range of browns, he conveys a lively sense of a thriving and contented community, created out of wilderness and returned to a ghostly half-life, but with a few decades of exemplary existence sandwiched in between. The contrasts in this book are fascinating and often moving, and the overall impact is memorable. MM
The Boys in the Trees New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008. Pbk. 207 p. 978-0-8050-8670-6
Toronto writer Mary Swan has written a story about a murder - not a conventional mystery because there is never any doubt about the murderer and not much about the motive. Nevertheless, she borrows a strategy from the standard whodunits by revealing the story in slow degrees. The murder occurs partway through the book and it would be a pity to reveal too much about what happens (for the same reason, readers are advised to avoid the blurb on the back). The story is really about the subtle build-up of events and personalities that create the conditions for the crime, and then about the widening ripples of its aftermath in a nineteenth-century Canadian town. The book is about several different boys who climb trees for different purposes at different points in time, but it is also a story of many other people in a traumatized community. Swan is subtle and perceptive, and the story is extremely absorbing. Just as in conventional murder mysteries, readers must keep their wits working because the narratives of different members of the town link in ways that are not always immediately obvious. The attentive reader, however, will be well rewarded with a rich sense of both the individuality of various characters and also the strength and significance of the communal web that connects them. This book is hard to put down. MM
No Time for Goodbye New York: Bantam, 2007. Hdbk. 338p. 978-0-553-80555-0.
The hard hitting prologue introduces the reader to teenage Cynthia Bigge the night after she has been found drunk, having been discovered lying to her parents, and taken from her date's parked vehicle by her outraged father. Cynthia wakes up defiant but this quickly changes as she realizes that her parents and brother have disappeared, not to be heard from again. The reader then moves twenty-five years to follow the adult Cynthia who is revisiting the mysterious scene for a national reality television show in an attempt to lay her own haunting fears to rest. Cynthia, her husband Terry, a high school teacher, and their young daughter as well as family friends become more and more drawn into the search for answers - but someone does not want the answers found!
This is a fast paced read that has several loose ends in the solving of the mystery but these loose ends will not be detrimental to the enjoyment and overall discovery of the truth behind the disappearance of Cynthia's family. Teen readers will easily sympathize with the teenage Cynthia's behaviour and emotional roller-coaster that permeates the novel as well as the relationship that the teacher, Terry, has with some of his more reluctant students.
(Barclay is a columnist for the Toronto Star) GdV
The Office Tower Tales Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008. Pbk. 252p. 978-0-88864-502-9
The Office Tower Tales is a long poem which reads like a novel. The story spans nine months in 1999 during which three women from a large engineering firm take their coffee breaks together. Against a backdrop of office towers, fast-food eateries, and harried people Aphrodite, receptionist, and Pandora, accounting and soon-to-be grandma, wait impatiently for Sheherazad, public relations, to spin her tales of everyday people and their modern-day problems. Although based in a downtown Edmonton food court, the setting could be any major city, and even mundane spaces become beautiful in Major's poetic words:
Women's washroom. The polished floor
gleams between the rows of metallic stalls
like the long trail of moonlight
on water that lies listening to the calls
of twilit nature.
The stories are diverse, many about situations teens of today are facing, and they are filled with longing, sadness and anger but tempered with humour and hope.
The Office Tower Tales is a paean to the power of oral storytelling and should encourage teen readers to tell their own stories, as well as comparing Major's stories with their earlier counterparts, Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, The Canterbury Tales and Greek mythology. MH
The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder Gibsons Landing, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2007. Pbk. 101 p. 978-0-88971-233-1
Readers of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder will have an informed entry into this book of short poems, as the subject matter is drawn from Wilder's children's books about the settlement of the American West. McCartney also draws on biographical information about Wilder that never made it into the series (such as the short life of her one brother who is elided right out of the children's books). Many of the poems refer to very particular elements of the books: “Ma's Green Delaine Dress,” “The Log That Falls on Ma's Foot during Construction of the Little House,” “The Wind at De Smet,” and so forth. However, these are not poems for children, as “Pa's Penis” reminds us.
The short sample of titles listed above give some indication of the theme of this book - in many of the poems McCartney focuses on objects or particular people at particular times in the saga. It would be possible to read this book without knowing the Little House books but being able to match the riff to the original version increases the resonance of these interesting poems. MM
Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems London, ON: Brick Books, 2008. Pbk. 187p. 978-1-894078-62-7
Terry Sawchuk was a legendary hockey goalie back in the days when goalies wore no masks and had no back-up goalie in the wings to take over when they were hurt. A hero for the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1950s, he was nevertheless traded to Boston, and after that served on a number of different teams. In 1967, he backstopped the Toronto Maple Leafs as they won the Stanley Cup, beating Montreal in the year of Canada's centennial and the last year that the National Hockey League was composed of only six teams.
In this book of poems, larded with a few interviews with Sawchuk's hockey contemporaries, Randall Maggs looks deep into the heart of the game, and particularly into the mystery of how goalies even functioned under the pressure of being irreplaceable. Here is an example of Maggs at work, exploring the phenomenon of playing hockey.
Four-faced, the clock sees everywhere.
Dead centre over the ice, it hangs from chains.
The players glance up, exchange a word, a sideward
look - less than a minute to go. They know time's rough
and tumble. Space and time, that's where they live,
arcs and angles, a quick move into open ice.
Their flashy physics.
. . . .
Get going clock.
Slow down slow down.
No one in the building likes time's pace. (49)
For anyone interested in hockey, this book hugely rewards the care and attention required to read it. The poems express many different voices but it is often left to readers to figure out who is speaking. The result is a thoughtful, prismatic, 360-degree view of a challenging game and an inscrutable superstar. Young readers interested in exploring this deep vision of an awe-inspiring game may like to equip themselves with some general background information about Sawchuk's career and contemporaries (Wikipedia is helpful here), in order to ground their reading. Maggs supplies most of the essential facts, but he also assumes a certain level of hockey knowledge about Sawchuk’s era on the part of his readers.
Very highly recommended for thoughtful fans of hockey, or for those who like to explore how supple poetry can be. MM
At a Loss for Words Toronto: HarperCollins, 2008. Hdbk. 189p. 978-0-00-200881-5
As the old song has it, "Everybody plays the fool sometimes. There's no exception to the rule" (Rudy Clark, Kenny Williams and Jim Bailey). At a Loss for Words shows that a successful middle-aged novelist can play the fool just as thoroughly as her younger self did. The novelist is taken aback at a book signing when the love of her young life appears; both seem keen to rekindle the flame after a lapse of thirty years. The story is told in a “you said...I said…then you said” format, with frequent bursts of horoscopes and lists of writing exercises to break the writer’s block that afflicts her as her romance blossoms. The narrator revels in the tiniest details of this relationship, which readers soon realize is becoming increasingly one-sided. Reading the entrails to discern her unforthcoming paramour’s emotions and wishes, the narrator is both devastatingly self-aware and at the same time, utterly clueless. Our narrator becomes increasingly desperate about her love life and her writer’s block. The solution to both problems will become evident fairly quickly, and readers of chick lit may enjoy squirming as the narrator and her close friends dissect the relationship. All in all, Diane Schoemperlen shows that, to cite another adage, there’s no fool like an old fool. JKM
The Iambics of Newfoundland: Notes from an Unknown Shore Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2007. Pbk. 270p. 978-1-58243-421-6
I'm a sucker for an intriguing title and The Iambics of Newfoundland certainly has that. It also has a wonderful series of essays and accounts based on Finch's travels and sojourns in Newfoundland from 1987 - 1996.Finch is an American essayist and nature writer who clearly loves the Newfoundland he has come to know while walking, driving, sailing, fishing, hunting and, everywhere, talking, with residents of Newfoundland. His essays range widely, from musings on why the pitcher plant, "a carnivorous angiosperm," was chosen as the official flower, to notes about the language, dialects, and theatrical speech of Newfoundlanders, to meditations on those deemed "better than the best": the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during WWI. More straightforward travelogues involving trips to see the gannet colony at Cape St. Mary's and other attractions on the Avalon Peninsula, trips to Fogo Island and a sailing trip from New York up to the South-West Coast of Newfoundland are also included. Anecdotes and short sketches of the people Finch meets on his travels, such as George, the hitchhiker who gives Finch the title for the book, are woven throughout. Part of the strength of this collection is the time period it covers - immediately before and after the groundfish moratorium of 1992. Finch is able to show numerous examples of the impact of the lack of fish and the loss of the fisheries on the communities and psyche of Newfoundlanders. Recommended for readers of literary travel or those with a deep interest in Newfoundland. EJ