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Powell’s Picks of the Month 2019

Definitely the bookshop which I am most looking forward to visiting at some point, Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon, has a wealth of wondrous website content.  They include frequent lists of books recommended by their booksellers, and have also collated their Picks of the Month for 2019 onto one handy page (see here).  I have scrolled through this list on many occasions, and thought it a worthwhile exercise to pick ten books from it which I am very much looking forward to reading.

 

1. The Swallows by Lisa Lutz 9781984818232
When Alexandra Witt joins the faculty at Stonebridge Academy, she’s hoping to put a painful past behind her. Then one of her creative writing assignments generates some disturbing responses from students. Before long, Alex is immersed in an investigation of the students atop the school’s social hierarchy — and their connection to something called the Darkroom. She soon inspires the girls who’ve started to question the school’s “boys will be boys” attitude and incites a resistance. But just as the movement is gaining momentum, Alex attracts the attention of an unknown enemy who knows a little too much about her — and what brought her to Stonebridge in the first place.  Meanwhile, Gemma, a defiant senior, has been plotting her attack for years, waiting for the right moment. Shy loner Norman hates his role in the Darkroom, but can’t find the courage to fight back until he makes an unlikely alliance. And then there’s Finn Ford, an English teacher with a shady reputation who keeps one eye on his literary ambitions and one on Ms. Witt. As the school’s secrets begin to trickle out, a boys-versus-girls skirmish turns into an all-out war, with deeply personal — and potentially fatal — consequences for everyone involved.  Lisa Lutz’s blistering, timely tale of revenge and disruption shows us what can happen when silence wins out over decency for too long — and why the scariest threat of all might be the idea that sooner or later, girls will be girls.’

 

97805255413322. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
‘In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans. Then a neighbor, Big Foot, turns up dead. Soon other bodies are discovered, in increasingly strange circumstances. As suspicions mount, Janina inserts herself into the investigation, certain that she knows whodunit. If only anyone would pay her mind…  A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?’

 

3. Heads of the Coloured People by Nafissa Thompson Spires 9781501168000
‘Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous — from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide — while others are devastatingly poignant — a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.   Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body.’

 

97800628628534. Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
From the day she is discovered unconscious in a New England cemetery at the turn of the twentieth century — nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold on her person — Bertha Truitt is an enigma to everyone in Salford, Massachusetts. She has no past to speak of, or at least none she is willing to reveal, and her mysterious origin scandalizes and intrigues the townspeople, as does her choice to marry and start a family with Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revived her. But Bertha is plucky, tenacious, and entrepreneurial, and the bowling alley she opens quickly becomes Salford’s most defining landmark — with Bertha its most notable resident.  When Bertha dies in a freak accident, her past resurfaces in the form of a heretofore-unheard-of son, who arrives in Salford claiming he is heir apparent to Truitt Alleys. Soon it becomes clear that, even in her death, Bertha’s defining spirit and the implications of her obfuscations live on, infecting and affecting future generations through inheritance battles, murky paternities, and hidden wills.  In a voice laced with insight and her signature sharp humor, Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unraveling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide.’

 

5. McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh 9780525522768
‘Salem, Massachusetts, 1851: McGlue is in the hold, still too drunk to be sure of name or situation or orientation — he may have killed a man. That man may have been his best friend. Intolerable memory accompanies sobriety. A-sail on the high seas of literary tradition, Ottessa Moshfegh gives us a nasty heartless blackguard on a knife-sharp voyage through the fogs of recollection.’

 

97815011346166. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive, years-in-the-making account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster — and a powerful investigation into how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.  Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering history’s worst nuclear disaster. In the thirty years since then, Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world: shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers its citizens and the entire world. But the real story of the accident, clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation, has long remained in dispute.   Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a masterful nonfiction thriller, and the definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth.  Midnight in Chernobyl is an indelible portrait of one of the great disasters of the twentieth century, of human resilience and ingenuity, and the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will — lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats, remain not just vital but necessary.’

 

7. The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid by Colin Meloy 9780062342461
It is an ordinary Tuesday morning in April when bored, lonely Charlie Fisher witnesses something incredible. Right before his eyes, in a busy square in Marseille, a group of pickpockets pulls off an amazing robbery. As the young bandits appear to melt into the crowd, Charlie realizes with a start that he himself was one of their marks.  Yet Charlie is less alarmed than intrigued. This is the most thrilling thing that’s happened to him since he came to France with his father, an American diplomat. So instead of reporting the thieves, Charlie defends one of their cannons, Amir, to the police, under one condition: he teach Charlie the tricks of the trade.  What starts off as a lesson on pinches, kicks, and chumps soon turns into an invitation for Charlie to join the secret world of the whiz mob, an international band of child thieves who trained at the mysterious School of Seven Bells. The whiz mob are independent and incredibly skilled and make their own way in the world — they are everything Charlie yearns to be. But what at first seemed like a (relatively) harmless new pastime draws him into a dangerous adventure with global stakes greater than he could have ever imagined.’

 

97803853526808. Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger
‘An emotionally engaging, suspenseful new novel from the best-selling author, told in the voice of a renowned physicist: an exploration of female friendship, romantic love, and parenthood — bonds that show their power in surprising ways.  Helen Clapp’s breakthrough work on five-dimensional spacetime landed her a tenured professorship at MIT; her popular books explain physics in plain terms. Helen disdains notions of the supernatural in favor of rational thought and proven ideas. So it’s perhaps especially vexing for her when, on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday in June, she gets a phone call from a friend who has just died.   That friend was Charlotte Boyce, Helen’s roommate at Harvard. The two women had once confided in each other about everything — in college, the unwanted advances Charlie received from a star literature professor; after graduation, Helen’s struggles as a young woman in science, Charlie’s as a black screenwriter in Hollywood, their shared challenges as parents. But as the years passed, Charlie became more elusive, and her calls came less and less often. And now she’s permanently, tragically gone.  As Helen is drawn back into Charlie’s orbit, and also into the web of feelings she once had for Neel Jonnal — a former college classmate now an acclaimed physicist on the verge of a Nobel Prize–winning discovery — she is forced to question the laws of the universe that had always steadied her mind and heart.’

 

9. Women Talking by Miriam Toews 9781635572582
Eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and over a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.  While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women–all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in–have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?  Told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of a community wrestling with its own foundational myths. For readers of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Women Talking examines the consequences of religious fundamentalism and communal isolation, and it celebrates the strength of women claiming their own power to decide.’

 

978152476313810. Becoming by Michelle Obama
‘In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America — the first African American to serve in that role — she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.  In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it — in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations — and whose story inspires us to do the same.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which books on the list have piqued your interest?  Are you one of those lucky people that has been to Powell’s already?

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The Book Trail: April Edition

I begin this particular Book Trail with a novel which I loved, but many people have seemingly been indifferent to, or have hated.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies 9809077
One ordinary afternoon in a nameless town, a nameless young woman is at work in a benefits office. Ten minutes later, she is in an underground parking lot, slammed up against a wall, having sex with a stranger.  What made her do this? How can she forget him? These are questions the young woman asks herself as she charts her deepening erotic obsession with painful, sometimes hilarious precision. With the crazy logic and hallucinatory clarity of an exhilarating, terrifying dream, told in chapters as short and surprising as snapshots, True Things About Me hurtles through the terrain of sexual obsession and asks what it is to know oneself and to test the limits of one’s desires.

 

2. Down from Cascom Mountain: A Novel by Ann Joslin Williams
Ann Joslin Williams grew up observing the craft of writing: her father, Thomas Williams, was a National Book Award-winning novelist. Many of his stories were set in the fictional town of Leah, New Hampshire, and on nearby Cascom Mountain, locations that closely mirrored the landscape of the Williamses’ real hometown. With Down from Cascom Mountain, Ann Joslin Williams proves herself a formidably talented novelist in her own right, while paying tribute to her father by setting her debut novel in the same fictional world-the New Hampshire he imagined and that she has always known.  In Down from Cascom Mountain, newlywed Mary Hall brings her husband to settle in the rural New Hampshire of her youth to fix up the house she grew up in and to reconnect to the land that defined her, with all its beauty and danger. But on a mountain day hike, she watches helplessly as her husband falls to his death. As she struggles with her sudden grief, in the days and months that follow, Mary finds new friendships-with Callie and Tobin, teenagers on the mountain club’s crew, and with Ben, the gentle fire watchman. All are haunted by their own losses, but they find ways to restore hope in one another, holding firmly as they navigate the rugged terrain of the unknown and unknowable, and loves lost and found.

 

110762353. Irma Voth by Miriam Toews
That rare coming-of-age story able to blend the dark with the uplifting, Irma Voth follows a young Mennonite woman, vulnerable yet wise beyond her years, who carries a terrible family secret with her on a remarkable journey to survival and redemption.  Nineteen-year-old Irma lives in a rural Mennonite community in Mexico. She has already been cast out of her family for marrying a young Mexican ne’er-do-well she barely knows, although she remains close to her rebellious younger sister and yearns for the lost intimacy with her mother. With a husband who proves elusive and often absent, a punishing father, and a faith in God damaged beyond repair, Irma appears trapped in an untenable and desperate situation. When a celebrated Mexican filmmaker and his crew arrive from Mexico City to make a movie about the insular community in which she was raised, Irma is immediately drawn to the outsiders and is soon hired as a translator on the set. But her father, intractable and domineering, is determined to destroy the film and get rid of the interlopers. His action sets Irma on an irrevocable path toward something that feels like freedom.  A novel of great humanity, written with dry wit, edgy humor, and emotional poignancy, Irma Voth is the powerful story of a young woman’s quest to discover all that she may become in the unexpectedly rich and confounding world that lies beyond the stifling, observant community she knows.

 

4. Curiosity by Joan Thomas
More than 40 years before the publication of The Origin of Species, 12-year-old Mary Anning, a cabinet-maker’s daughter, found the first intact skeleton of a prehistoric dolphin-like creature, and spent a year chipping it from the soft cliffs near Lyme Regis. This was only the first of many important discoveries made by this incredible woman, perhaps the most important paleontologist of her day.  Henry de la Beche was the son of a gentry family, owners of a slave-worked estate in Jamaica where he spent his childhood. As an adolescent back in England, he ran away from military college, and soon found himself living with his elegant, cynical mother in Lyme Regis, where he pursued his passion for drawing and painting the landscapes and fossils of the area. One morning on an expedition to see an extraordinary discovery — a giant fossil — he meets a young woman unlike anyone he has ever met…

 

5. Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay 9970166
In a small prairie school in 1929, Connie Flood helps a backward student, Michael Graves, learn how to read. Observing them and darkening their lives is the principal, Parley Burns, whose strange behaviour culminates in an attack so disturbing its repercussions continue to the present day.  Connie’s niece, Anne, tells the story. Impelled by curiosity about her dynamic, adventurous aunt and her more conventional mother, she revisits Connie’s past and her mother’s broken childhood. In the process, she unravels the enigma of Parley Burns and the mysterious (and unrelated) deaths of two young girls. As the novel moves deeper into their lives, the triangle of principal, teacher, student opens out into other emotional triangles – aunt, niece, lover; mother, daughter, granddaughter – until a sudden, capsizing love thrusts Anne herself into a newly independent life.  This spellbinding tale – set in Saskatchewan and the Ottawa Valleycrosses generations and cuts to the bone. It probes the roots of obsessive love and hate, how the hurts and desires of childhood persist and are passed on as if in the blood. It lays bare the urgency of discovering what we were never told about the past. And it celebrates the process of becoming who we are in a world full of startling connections that lie just out of sight.

 

6. Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart
Told through delicate and masterful narration, Jane Urquhart’s new novel, Sanctuary Line, seamlessly weaves together fragments of present day farm life on the shores of Lake Erie with harrowing snapshots of deep family turmoil marred by stains of death and regret.

 

11605867. Galveston by Paul Quarrington
From one of Canada’s beloved fiction writers comes a tale of love and loss, guilt and forgiveness — and finding redemption in the eye of a hurricane.  Few people seek out the tiny Caribbean island of Dampier Cay. Visitors usually wash up there by accident, rather than by design. But this weekend, three people will fly to the island deliberately. They are not coming for a tan or fun in the sun. They are coming because Dampier Cay is where it is, and they have reason to believe that they might encounter something there that most people take great measures to avoid – a hurricane.  A lottery windfall and a few hours of selfishness have robbed Caldwell of all that was precious to him, while Beverly, haunted by tragedy and screwed by fate since birth, has given up on life. Also on the flight is Jimmy Newton, a professional storm chaser and videographer who will do anything for the perfect shot. Waiting for them at Dampier is the manager of the Water’s Edge Hotel, “Bonefish” Maywell Hope, who arrived at Dampier by the purest accident of all — the accident of birth. A descendent of the pirates who sailed the Caribbean hundreds of years ago, Hope believes if he works hard enough, he can prevent the inevitable. Until, that is, the seas begin to rise…

 

8. Open by Lisa Moore
Lisa Moore’s Open makes you believe three things unequivocally: that St. John’s is the centre of the universe, that these stories are about absolutely everything, that the only certainty in life comes from the accumulation of moments which refuse to be contained. Love, mistakes, loss — the fear of all of these, the joy of all of these. The interconnectedness of a bus ride in Nepal and a wedding on the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake; of the tension between a husband and wife when their infant cries before dawn (who will go to him?) and the husband’s memory of an early, piercing love affair; of two friends, one who suffers early in life and the other midway through.  In Open Lisa Moore splices moments and images together so adroitly, so vividly, you’ll swear you’ve lived them yourself. That there is a writer like Lisa Moore threading a live wire through everything she sees, showing it to us, warming us with it. These stories are a gathering in. An offering. They ache and bristle. They are shared riches. Open.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

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2018 Travel: Books Set in Canada

I thought that I would prepare a week-long series of books which I would recommend in the countries which I have been to so far in 2018.  I have copied the official blurbs, and have also linked my review if I have written anything extensive.  I will be including seven books per destination, so as to showcase the best of the work which I have read, and not to make the posts too lengthy.  Our first stop is Canada.

331872311. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964)
In her best-loved novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence introduces Hagar Shipley, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction. Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.  As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a black prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride and by the stern virtues she has inherited from her pioneer ancestors.  Vivid, evocative, moving, The Stone Angel celebrates the triumph of the spirit, and reveals Margaret Laurence at the height of her powers as a writer of extraordinary craft and profound insight into the workings of the human heart.

2. Shelter by Frances Greenslade (2011; review here)
A gorgeous, poetic literary debut from award-winning author Frances Greenslade, Shelter is a brilliant coming-of-age story of two strong, brave sisters searching for their mother.  For sisters Maggie and Jenny growing up in the Pacific mountains in the early 1970s, life felt nearly perfect. Seasons in their tiny rustic home were peppered with wilderness hikes, building shelters from pine boughs and telling stories by the fire with their doting father and beautiful, adventurous mother. But at night, Maggie—a born worrier—would count the freckles on her father’s weathered arms, listening for the peal of her mother’s laughter in the kitchen, and never stop praying to keep them all safe from harm. Then her worst fears come true: Not long after Maggie’s tenth birthday, their father is killed in a logging accident, and a few months later, their mother abruptly drops the girls at a neighbor’s house, promising to return. She never does.   With deep compassion and sparkling prose, Frances Greenslade’s mesmerizing debut takes us inside the extraordinary strength of these two girls as they are propelled from the quiet, natural freedom in which they were raised to a world they can’t begin to fathom. Even as the sisters struggle to understand how their mother could abandon them, they keep alive the hope that she is fighting her way back to the daughters who adore her and who need her so desperately.  Heartwarming and lushly imagined, Shelter celebrates the love between two sisters and the complicated bonds of family. It is an exquisitely written ode to sisters, mothers, daughters, and to a woman’s responsibility to herself and those she loves.

3. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996) 10192871
It’s 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.  An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?  Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

4. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (2004)
In this stunning coming-of-age novel, award-winner Miriam Toews balances grief and hope in the voice of a witty, beleaguered teenager whose family is shattered by fundamentalist Christianity.  “Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing,” Nomi Nickel tells us at the beginning of A Complicated Kindness. Left alone with her sad, peculiar father, her days are spent piecing together why her mother and sister have disappeared and contemplating her inevitable career at Happy Family Farms, a chicken slaughterhouse on the outskirts of East Village. Not the East Village in New York City where Nomi would prefer to live, but an oppressive town founded by Mennonites on the cold, flat plains of Manitoba, Canada.  This darkly funny novel is the world according to the unforgettable Nomi, a bewildered and wry sixteen-year-old trapped in a town governed by fundamentalist religion and in the shattered remains of a family it destroyed. In Nomi’s droll, refreshing voice, we’re told the story of an eccentric, loving family that falls apart as each member lands on a collision course with the only community any of them have ever known. A work of fierce humor and tragedy by a writer who has taken the American market by storm, this searing, tender, comic testament to family love will break your heart.

17735295. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1993)
The Stone Diaries is one ordinary woman’s story of her journey through life. Born in 1905, Daisy Stone Goodwill drifts through the roles of child, wife, widow, and mother, and finally into her old age. Bewildered by her inability to understand her place in her own life, Daisy attempts to find a way to tell her story within a novel that is itself about the limitations of autobiography. Her life is vivid with incident, and yet she feels a sense of powerlessness. She listens, she observes, and through sheer force of imagination she becomes a witness of her own life: her birth, her death, and the troubling missed connections she discovers between. Daisy’s struggle to find a place for herself in her own life is a paradigm of the unsettled decades of our era. A witty and compassionate anatomist of the human heart, Carol Shields has made distinctively her own that place where the domestic collides with the elemental. With irony and humor she weaves the strands of The Stone Diaries together in this, her richest and most poignant novel to date.

6. Selected Stories by Alice Munro (1985)
Spanning almost thirty years and settings that range from big cities to small towns and farmsteads of rural Canada, this magnificent collection brings together twenty-eight stories by a writer of unparalleled wit, generosity, and emotional power. In her Selected Stories, Alice Munro makes lives that seem small unfold until they are revealed to be as spacious as prairies and locates the moments of love and betrayal, desire and forgiveness, that change those lives forever. To read these stories–about a traveling salesman and his children on an impromptu journey; an abandoned woman choosing between seduction and solitude–is to succumb to the spell of a writer who enchants her readers utterly even as she restores them to their truest selves.

7. Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret 1356546Atwood (1995)
Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which ones appeal to you?

Purchase from The Book Depository

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The Book Trail: Swinging to Nightbirds

We begin with a very thoughtful and compelling work of Miriam Toews’ for this particular Book Trail!

1. Swing Low by Miriam Toews 17846957
One morning Mel Toews put on his coat and hat and walked out of town, prepared to die. A loving husband and father, faithful member of the Mennonite church, and immensely popular schoolteacher, he was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggle, he could no longer face the darkness of manic depression.  With razor-sharp precision,Swing Low tells his story in his own voice, taking us deep inside the experience of despair. But it is also a funny, winsome evocation of country life: growing up on farm, courting a wife, becoming a teacher, and rearing a happy, strong family in the midst of private torment.  A humane, inspiring story of a remarkable man, father, and teacher.’

 

2. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
From an emerging master of short fiction and one of Canada’s most distinctive voices, a collection of stories as heartbreaking as those of Lorrie Moore and as hilariously off-kilter as something out of McSweeney’s. In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, but with even greater depth and darker humour. Whether she casts her eye on evolution and modern manhood when an upscale cul-de-sac is thrown into chaos after a redneck moves into the neighbourhood, international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, or terrorism, Gartner filets the righteous and the ridiculous with dexterity in equal, glorious measure. These stories ruthlessly expose our most secret desires, and allow us to snort with laughter at the grotesque world we’d live in if we all got what we wanted.

 

3. Open by Lisa Moore
498084Lisa Moore’s Open makes you believe three things unequivocally: that St. John’s is the centre of the universe, that these stories are about absolutely everything, that the only certainty in life comes from the accumulation of moments which refuse to be contained. Love, mistakes, loss — the fear of all of these, the joy of all of these. The interconnectedness of a bus ride in Nepal and a wedding on the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake; of the tension between a husband and wife when their infant cries before dawn (who will go to him?) and the husband’s memory of an early, piercing love affair; of two friends, one who suffers early in life and the other midway through.  In Open Lisa Moore splices moments and images together so adroitly, so vividly, you’ll swear you’ve lived them yourself. That there is a writer like Lisa Moore threading a live wire through everything she sees, showing it to us, warming us with it. These stories are a gathering in. An offering. They ache and bristle. They are shared riches. Open.

 

4. Luck by Joan Barfoot
Philip Lawrence, a robust and pleasure-loving furniture-maker, dies suddenly at the age of forty-six. Though that’s terribly young by most standards, he’s lucky to have passed presumably peacefully in his sleep. Less fortunate, however, are the three women he leaves behind to make sense of his loss.  There’s Nora, his wife of seventeen years, who wakes up next to his dead body. A fiery visual artist, Nora’s feminist re-interpretation of biblical themes stoked fundamentalist outrage from her small-town neighbours. Now, as her emotions run the gamut, she must confront solo life in a place she despises.  Nora shares the house with Sophie, a buxom and bossy redhead, who works as the couple’s housekeeper and personal assistant. A recovering virtue addict, Sophie turns to menial tasks as a way to suppress painful memories of her two-year stint as an overseas aid worker. Philip’s death leaves her quietly reeling.  And then there’s the pliable and vacuous Beth, a former beauty queen, who serves as Nora’s live-in muse and model. She mourns not Philip so much as the loss of a haven from her own creepy past.  The novel follows the three days immediately after Philip’s death. Privately, each woman deals with memories and emotions, secrets and uncomfortable revelations, while at the same time preparing for the public rituals of mourning (including a funeral like no other). The narrative moves seamlessly from one perspective to another with delicious dark humour and wry insight into the nature of death, love, mourning, fundamentalism and luck.

 

5. Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa 2454933
At the heart of this collection of intimately linked stories is the relationship between a father and his son. A young fisherman washes up nearly dead on the shores of Newfoundland. It is Manuel Rebelo who has tried to escape the suffocating smallness of his Portuguese village and the crushing weight of his mother’s expectations to build a future for himself in a terra nova. Manuel struggles to shed the traditions of a village frozen in time and to silence the brutal voice of Maria Theresa da Conceicao Rebelo, but embracing the promise of his adopted land is not as simple as he had hoped.  Manuel’s son, Antonio, is born into Toronto’s little Portugal, a world of colourful houses and labyrinthine back alleys. In the Rebelo home the Church looms large, men and women inhabit sharply divided space, pigs are slaughtered in the garage, and a family lives in the shadow cast by a father’s failures. Most days Antonio and his friends take to their bikes, pushing the boundaries of their neighbourhood street by street, but when they finally break through to the city beyond they confront dangers of a new sort.  With fantastic detail, larger-than-life characters and passionate empathy, Anthony De Sa invites readers into the lives of the Rebelos and finds there both the promise and the disappointment inherent in the choices made by the father and the expectations placed on the son.

 

6. The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan
At the turn of the twentieth century, newly arrived to the countryside, William Heath, his wife, and two daughters appear the picture of a devoted family. But when accusations of embezzlement spur William to commit an unthinkable crime, those who witnessed this affectionate, attentive father go about his routine of work and family must reconcile action with character. A doctor who cared for the young Lillian searches for clues that might penetrate the mystery of the father’s motivation. Meanwhile Rachel’s teacher grapples with guilt over a moment when fate wove her into a succession of events that will haunt her dreams.  In beautifully crafted prose, Mary Swan examines the intricate and unexpected connections between the people in this close-knit community that continue to echo in the future. In her nuanced, evocative descriptions, a locket contains immeasurable sorrow, trees provide sanctuary and refuge to lost souls, and grief clicks into place when a man cocks the cold steel barrel of a revolver. A supreme literary achievement, The Boys in the Trees offers a chilling story that swells with acutely observed emotion and humanity.

 

7. The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji
1664732In the aftermath of the brutal violence that gripped western India in 2002, Karsan Dargawalla, heir to Pirbaag – the shrine of a mysterious, medieval sufi – begins to tell the story of his family. His tale opens in the 1960s: young Karsan is next in line after his father to assume lordship of the shrine, but he longs to be “just ordinary.” Despite his father’s pleas, Karsan leaves home behind for Harvard, and, eventually, marriage and a career. Not until tragedy strikes, both in Karsan’s adopted home in Canada and in Pirbaag, is he drawn back across thirty years of separation and silence to discover what, if anything, is left for him in India.

 

8. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of a fragmenting Punjab and moving between Canada and India, Can you Hear the Nightbird Call? charts the interweaving stories of three Indian women – Bibi-ji, Leela and Nimmo – each in search of a resting place amid rapidly changing personal and political landscapes.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

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The Book Trail: From ‘A Complicated Kindness’ to ‘By Night the Mountain Burns’

We begin today’s episode of the Book Trail with one which I very much enjoyed, Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness.  As ever, I shall be choosing the books which follow from Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature.

1. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews 1019390
Nomi Nickel lives with her father, Ray, in East Village, a small Mennonite town in Manitoba. She dreams of escaping to the big city, but since her mother and sister left home, it’s hard to imagine leaving her father behind. As she begins to piece together the story behind her mother’s disappearance, she finds herself on a direct collision course with the town’s minister. With fierce originality and brilliance, Miriam Toews takes us straight to the centre of Nomi’s world and the complicated kindness at the heart of family life.

 

2. Lullabies for Little Prisoners by Heather O’Neill
Heather O’Neill dazzles with a first novel of extraordinary prescience and power, a subtly understated yet searingly effective story of a young life on the streets—and the strength, wits, and luck necessary for survival.  At thirteen, Baby vacillates between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a vinyl suitcase yet old enough to know more than she should about urban cruelties. Motherless, she lives with her father, Jules, who takes better care of his heroin habit than he does of his daughter. Baby’s gift is a genius for spinning stories and for cherishing the small crumbs of happiness that fall into her lap. But her blossoming beauty has captured the attention of a charismatic and dangerous local pimp who runs an army of sad, slavishly devoted girls—a volatile situation even the normally oblivious Jules cannot ignore. And when an escape disguised as betrayal threatens to crush Baby’s spirit, she will ultimately realize that the power of salvation rests in her hands alone.

 

4746623. Certainty by Madeleine Thien
Madeleine Thien’s stunning debut novel hauntingly retells a crucial moment in history, through two unforgettable love stories.   Gail Lim, a producer of radio documentaries, is haunted by the mystery of her father’s Asian past. As a child, Gail’s father, Matthew Lim, lived in a Malaysian village occupied by the Japanese. He and his beloved Ani wandered the jungle fringe under the terrifying shadow of war. The war shattered their families, splitting the two apart until a brief reunion years later. Matthew’s profound connection to Ani and the life-changing secrets they shared cast a shadow that, later still, Matthew’s wife, Clara, desperately sought to understand. Gail’s journey to unravel the mystery of her parents’ lives takes her to Amsterdam, where she unearths more about this mysterious other woman. But as Gail approaches the truth, Ani’s story will bring Gail face-to-face, with the untold mysteries of her own life.  Vivid, poignant, and written in understated yet powerful prose, Certainty is a novel about the legacies of loss, the dislocations of war, and the timeless redemption afforded by love.

 

4. Holding Still for As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall
What is it like to grow into adulthood with the war on terror as your defining political memory, with SARS and Hurricane Katrina as your backdrop? In this robust, elegantly plotted, and ultimately life-affirming novel, Zoe Whittall presents a dazzling portrait of a generation we’ve rarely seen in literature — the twenty-five-year olds who grew up on anti-anxiety meds, text-messaging each other truncated emotional reactions, unsure of what’s public and what’s private.  Zoe Whittall fulfills the promise of her acclaimed first novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, with this extraordinary novel set in Toronto’s seedy-but-gentrifying Parkdale. Revolving around three interlocking lives, it offers, among other things, a detailed inside look at the work of paramedics, and entertaining celebrity gossip.

 

5. Leaving Earth by Helen Humphreys 1061379
Leaving Earth is a first novel marked by its perceptive, lyrical language and rich, fascinating characters. On August 1, 1933, two young women, the famous aviatrix Grace O’Gorman and the inexperienced Willa Briggs, take off in a tiny moth biplane to break the world flight-endurance record. Their plan is to circle above the city of Toronto for twenty-five days. With each passing day, the women’s ties to humanity fall away and the intensity of their connection becomes as gripping as the perils that besiege them: fatigue, weather, mechanical breakdown, and the lethal efforts of a saboteur. In this extraordinary debut, Humphreys exhibits rare control, restraint, and poetry as she develops the relationship of two unusual women through the magical passage of flight.

 

6. She Of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya
She of the Mountains is a beautifully rendered illustrated novel by Vivek Shraya, the author of the Lambda Literary Award finalist God Loves Hair. Shraya weaves a passionate, contemporary love story between a man and his body, with a re-imagining of Hindu mythology. Both narratives explore the complexities of embodiment and the damaging effects that policing gender and sexuality can have on the human heart.

 

178621897. Corona by Bushra Rehman
Razia Mirza is a Pakistani woman from Corona, Queens, who grew up in a tight Muslim community surrounding the first Sunni masjid built in New York City. When a rebellious streak leads to her ex-communication, she decides to hit the road. Corona moves between Razia’s childhood and the comedic misadventures she encounters on her journey, from a Puritan Colony in Massachusetts to New York City’s Bhangra music scene. With each story, we learn more about the past she’s escaping, a past which leads her to constantly travel in a spiral, always coming closer to but never quite arriving home.

 

8. By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel
By Night The Mountain Burns recounts the narrator’s childhood on a remote island off the West African coast, living with his mysterious grandfather, several mothers and no fathers. We learn of a dark chapter in the island’s history: a bush fire destroys the crops, then hundreds perish in a cholera outbreak. Superstition dominates: now the islanders must sacrifice their possessions to the enraged ocean god. What of their lives will they manage to save?  Whitmanesque in its lyrical evocation of the island, Ávila Laurel’s writing builds quietly, through the oral rhythms of traditional storytelling, into gripping drama worthy of an Achebe or a García Márquez.

 

Have you read any of these books?

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Reading Around the World: Canada

The books set in Canada which I have read are largely by three authors, all of whom I have included here.  This is not a varied set of recommendations, by any stretch of the imagination; rather, they are all relatively popular and well-known books which I have just happened to enjoy.

1. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
‘”Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.” Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

2. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields 9780143105503
‘One of the most successful and acclaimed novels of our time, this fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett is a subtle but affecting portrait of an everywoman reflecting on an unconventional life. What transforms this seemingly ordinary tale is the richness of Daisy’s vividly described inner life–from her earliest memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death.’

3. Runaway by Alice Munro
‘The matchless Munro makes art out of everyday lives in this exquisite collection. Here are men and women of wildly different times and circumstances, their lives made vividly palpable by the nuance and empathy of Munro’s writing. Runaway is about the power and betrayals of love, about lost children, lost chances. There is pain and desolation beneath the surface, like a needle in the heart, which makes these stories more powerful and compelling than anything she has written before. It is the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2009.’

97818604988004. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
‘Laura Chase’s older sister Iris, married at eighteen to a politically prominent industrialist but now poor and eighty-two, is living in Port Ticonderoga, a town dominated by their once-prosperous family before the First War. While coping with her unreliable body, Iris reflects on her far from exemplary life, in particular the events surrounding her sister’s tragic death. Chief among these was the publication of The Blind Assassin, a novel which earned the dead Laura Chase not only notoriety but also a devoted cult following. Sexually explicit for its time, The Blind Assassin describes a risky affair in the turbulent thirties between a wealthy young woman and a man on the run. During their secret meetings in rented rooms, the lovers concoct a pulp fantasy set on Planet Zycron. As the invented story twists through love and sacrifice and betrayal, so does the real one; while events in both move closer to war and catastrophe. By turns lyrical, outrageous, formidable, compelling and funny, this is a novel filled with deep humour and dark drama.’

5. The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews
‘Meet the Troutmans. Hattie is living in Paris, city of romance, but has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Min, her sister back in Canada, is going through a particularly dark period. And Min’s two kids, Logan and Thebes, are not talking and talking way too much, respectively. When Hattie receives a phone call from eleven-year-old Thebes, begging her to return to Canada, she arrives home to find Min on her way to a psychiatric ward, and becomes responsible for her niece and nephew. Realising that she is way out of her league, Hattie hatches a plan to find the kids’ long-lost father. With only the most tenuous lead to go on, she piles Logan and Thebes into the family van, and they head south.’

 

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