Book Launch: Sleeping Funny by Miranda Hill

I asked Random House for a review copy of Sleeping Funny for the most ignoble of reasons–I figured my neighborhood would appear in the book. Miranda Hill lives a few streets away from me. I once saw her at my local Shoppers Drug Mart.  If you live in the sort of city Hollywood would pick for the alien invasion, you’re probably inured to this particular thrill, but seeing as I don’t, I do request books based on the recognition factor. But when I began reading, I realized that I had it all wrong. Yes, my hood was indeed portrayed in sumptuous detail, in a most illuminating light, but reading this book for those reasons was like visiting the Taj Mahal because I was looking for some shade.

Sleeping Funny is a collection of nine stories, one of which won the Journey Prize (Canada’s top prize for short stories) last year. Hill essentially examines how people react when confronted with the unexpected, but the latter précis does little justice to the wondrous variety of events and characters in this book. A smug middle-class neighborhood of professional women is shaken when a beautiful, bohemian artist moves in.  A teen girl attends sex-ed class to find herself witnessing the conception scenes of all her classmates. A young widow plants a garden to deal with the death of her pilot husband in World War II. A woman maintains a hospital vigil for a man who jumped off a high-rise rooftop.

I was perhaps most struck by Hill’s generosity as a writer in giving the reader many points of entry for each story– through character, through humor, through story titles with multiple interpretations, and most importantly, through the truths lurking on each page.  A character recalls the first time her husband hit her. “I couldn’t even remember Cy’s fist on me. It was as if something had pushed its way out from the inside like a latent cancer. ‘This is how I look as a beaten woman,’ I said. I tried it on like a uniform, and felt it settle on me like something I was always meant to wear.” Hill writes with uncanny perceptiveness, and she knows just how to inject the telling detail that’ll infuse a scene with depth and texture.  Here’s a woman at neighbor’s house, serving plastic glasses of wine “as if they were her mother-in-law’s good crystal.”  A child is so neglected that “his nails developed a rim of grime until, despairing of ever being told to clean them, he did it himself.”

So there was no way I’d miss the official release of this book or the chance to meet the writer. The launch, on Monday night, was hosted in inimitable style by Kerry of Bryan Prince Books, a store whose virtues I have long lauded on this blog.  The room was packed, but my friend and I came early, and besides, we strategically deposited our  handbags onto the good seats. (Men, I guess, slough off their jackets?) Hill read excerpts from three stories, and answered questions from Jeanie Macfarlane on her choice of form and her genesis as a writer. And yes, about her (our?) neighborhood. She also kindly signed my book with a personal inscription. In green ink. Given this book, I expected nothing less.

And here are pictures from that night, courtesy writer Ania Szado (check out her work, do).

Miranda Hill

Miranda Hill interviewed by Jeanie Macfarlane

Canada Day Book Giveaway!

UPDATE: This giveaway is now closed.

It’s Canada Day on July 1, and along with a host of other Canada-based  bloggers, I’m giving away a Canada-themed book to mark the day. Huzzah!

I’m giving away the acclaimed YA novel Karma (2011), by Calgary-based author Cathy Ostlere. Karma is a 2012 Canadian Library Honour book, a 2012 Booklist Editor’s Choice, a 2012 South Asia Book Award, Highly Commended Book, and is shortlisted for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award.

About the book: Fifteen-year-old Maya and her father Amar arrive from their home in Canada into a seething moment in India’s history.  On October 31, 1984, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two Sikh bodyguards, and the assassination leads to Sikh families being killed in retribution; Amar and Maya are Sikh. “Karma is the story of how a young woman, straddling two cultures and enduring personal loss, learns forgiveness, acceptance and love.”

Reviews: “With its sweeping, even soaring reach, this novel contains a range of earthly experiences and emotions as well: love and death, hatred and evil, joy and engulfing sorrow as perceived and experienced by its two beautifully drawn teen protagonists…” (from The Globe and Mail)

“In her YA debut, acclaimed adult author Ostlere offers a riveting, historically accurate coming-of age tale of gutsy survival, self-sacrifice, and love. Set during a six-week period, the novel in verse makes the most of its lyrical form with lines of dialogue that bounce back and forth in columns across the page and singularly beautiful metaphors and similes that convey potent detail and emotion.” (from Booklist)

If you’d like a spanking new copy of Karma–let me know in the comments! This giveaway runs from June 28 to July 1, and is open to US and Canadian residents. I’ll pick a winner on July 2 using Random Number Generator.

Do check out the other giveaways too! This Blog Hop is hosted by Aislynn of Stitch Read Cook, Chrystal of Snow Drop Dreams and Carmel of Rabid Reads. Please click on the linky to see the full list of participating blogs–I don’t know how to post the list here.

(All book-related information in this post is from the author’s website.)

Update: Thank you to all who entered this giveaway. The winner as picked by was #15 — Shannon of Giraffe Days.


A reading with Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston and James Bartleman

I attended the World Literacy Canada reading at the Park Hyatt Toronto earlier this week to see these three authors.  There was a line-up, of the sort you’d expect to see at a samizdat store selling discounted iPads; literature isn’t dead, you doomsayers.

(L to R: Johnston, Bartleman, Mistry. Pic from

First on stage was James Bartleman, whom I’d never heard of prior to this event: the more fool I. Bartleman is a former career diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, Bangladesh, and Israel, so he must have been awfully good at his job. He was then Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2002-2007, and yes, I should have known this.

Bartleman talked about the background of his novel As Long as the Rivers Flow, about First Nations kids entering suicide pacts and killing themselves at age thirteen because their future lives seemed to be pointless. It was heart-breaking–I found myself tearing up, and I’m not a crier. The parents of these children were mostly survivors of residential schools, where they’d faced years of racial (and often, sexual) abuse.  Obviously, if you’d been plucked away from your parents at age six and then returned to them at sixteen, after undergoing ten years of barbaric treatment, you’d have little knowledge about how to provide a supportive atmosphere for your own children. And this isn’t comfortingly ancient history–according to Wikipedia, “the last residential school, White Calf Collegiate, was closed in 1996.” WTF. WTF.WTF.

I’m a little fearful of reading the novel–I think I’ll wait for the fall, by which time I’ll hopefully have gathered up my courage. Oh, and  Bartleman (who is a member of the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation) has advocated for many years to build literacy in First Nations communities, and to date, he’s gathered over 2 million books for this initiative. Holy wow.

Next up was Wayne Johnston, who spoke about injecting fiction into historical nonfiction for narrative balance–and the consequences  of that decision when he began the publicity for his book, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (which deals with the history of Newfoundland). I don’t know much about the subject, so I’ll just say that Johnston is an excellent raconteur with a fine repository of accents, and leave it there.

My blog giveaway winner Mayank and I were both madly excited to hear Rohinton Mistry, whom we count among the best writers in the world. (I spent twenty minutes with a flat-iron in Mistry’s honor before setting out to the event. No, nobody noticed.) Mistry read from his short work The Scream, which was originally available back in 2006 in a limited edition of 150 copies, and sold exclusively by World Literacy Canada to raise funds for them.  The original edition was priced at $500, and the proceeds went to literacy efforts in South Asia; the book is now available for $15.68 on Amazon for us cheapies.

Mistry’s intense, dramatic reading had me glued to my chair, but sadly (for me, that is), his session was confined to his book–he didn’t talk about his writing process, and there was no Q&A after, so I have no news or insight to offer about his work. He did however mention he was working on a new book, so we can all breathe easy and cross off Christmas presents for an upcoming year. I’d planned to buy The Scream and get it signed, but the booksellers ran out of copies, so I had to content myself with his signature on my program. Which I’ll treasure forevah!

And finally, a big shout-out to World Literacy Canada, for all their work in bring people and literature together, both here in Toronto and all over the globe. There was so much positive energy in that room that night, the sort of energy produced when you are having a good time and doing something good. That combination doesn’t occur often in my life; I can’t wait for next year’s Kama!

Women of the Short Story Tour

I live at a tantalizingly inconvenient distance from Toronto. The accursed highway that links me to literary activity is a perpetual jam; what should be a 45-minute drive takes two hours most evenings.  So a 7:00 pm Toronto event  means I have to start getting ready at 4:30, which is why I’m mostly wearing sweats and listening to The Art of Noise as I teach my son to fold laundry when I could be in THE COMPANY OF GIANTS.

But occasionally, there’s an event right at my doorstep that blows me out of the water, thanks to my local bookstore which happens to be one of Canada’s best indies.  Tuesday saw the Women of the Short Story tour (from Biblioasis) stop at Bryan Prince Bookseller, where Rebecca Rosenblum, Cathy Stonehouse, and Laura Boudreau read from their story collections. I’d only read Rosenblum’s book prior to the event, but I’m remedying my omission as I write this post.

It was a wonderful evening. Each of the writers had different styles and different strengths–Boudreau almost gave a performance (I’m guessing she has a theatre minor, or at least some sort of stage experience), for she captured the cadences and attitude of her protagonist, a twelve-year-old girl who’s figured out a way to buy cigarettes without getting caught, with pleasing exactitude.  Stonehouse’s delivery was more deadpan–she’d sneak in these great lines and I’d pause, wondering if I’d heard right–and it was perfect for a piece about a woman who discovers she can speak to a dog.  In Rosenblum’s case, I was most invested in hearing how she read what she’d written–it was fascinating to note what she chose to emphasize and what she didn’t, and how my interpretation stacked up against the author’s original vision.

Oh, there was wine, and some very nice cheeses, which I might call artisan if I had any European genes.

And what’s a blog post about a reading without pictures? Courtesy the affable Ray Boudreau, we have photographs! And thanks to me, you have excerpts, all manually entered for this post.

Rebecca Rosenblum

“The evening was much the same as any. He showered and checked his email in his bathrobe (his brother updating his birding life list; lawyer-joke forward from former colleague; thanks from the young turks at the office for projections he’d sent). Then he watched The National while sitting on the foot of the bed, until there was a story about Kim Jong Il’s plutonium stores. Laurence shivered, and flipped off the set before the human-interest story about llamas, which weren’t human anyway, and slept quietly on his side of the bed. He dreamt of kimchi, a food he had never eaten but was surely vile.

But it was only the next morning that things really started to go to hell.

He did seven crossword clues waiting for toast before recalling that Syl kept the toaster was unplugged for fear of electrical fires. Straight from the fridge, the butter was hard and punctured the bread. He forgot to make the tea until he wanted to drink it, and then the first bag he found turned out to be utterly not Earl Grey but something gingery that promised, upon inspection of the packet, to ease gas pains with natural effectiveness. He didn’t know what that meant or what this product was doing in his home.” —The Big Dream.

Laura Boudreau

“You look beautiful, someone says to someone else. And it must be true because there can be no lies on a patio where people are whole-face laughing about a punch line that goes, But I thought you were writing a novel! I look around to make certain, and sure enough, we are beautiful. Even the man in the rumpled brown suit who is spilling his glass of wine is beautiful. He pinballs around the party, bumping into chairs and bouncing off elbows, veering towards a woman in a short skirt and particularly freckled legs. I am a poet, he tells her, emphasizing the “am”. Yes, I believe you, the woman says.  She says it with the sort of kindness that only comes from concerned strangers and friends who have seen you naked.” — Suitable Precautions

Cathy Stonehouse

“When she left the bank, her plan had been to open an attraction, lay it out along the front lawn. Derek had just been laid-off from his job as station-master, now that the company had introduced self-serve: sleek, digital ticket dispensers that required maintenance only once a week. People pay money to view attractions and she still had her pride, was determined to provide Derek and herself with a source of income, albeit one that did not necessitate her leaving the house.  Her original goal, she admits, was over-ambitious: a scale model of England circa 1972. Since Derek left, she has scaled back, is focusing instead on three dioramas, each entitled The England That Could Have Been. She still believes she can find a way to display them. One can go in the hall, one in the living room, the third in the kitchen, with perhaps a tea-shop situated out back.  Tourists often stop off for meals, en route to the Lake District, and she could put up a sign on the motorway: Cream Teas and Miniature Propaganda.” —Something About the Animal.

I relish discovering resonances between a writer’s work and my own experiences, both as a reader and in life, and I struck gold this time around.  Towards the end of the evening, I made the connection that Cathy Stonehouse co-edited a book about motherhood that was gifted to me shortly after the birth of my child, back when I was in a losing battle with the fanged beast produced by the marriage of social expectations of parenting with my own inadequacies as a mother.  (I still struggle, but the beast’s claws have indeed blunted with time). Double Lives is an anthology of courageous, sympathetic,  unsentimental pieces about being a mother, and I’ve gifted many copies of this wonderful book to mom-friends. If you are interested in this topic, do check out Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood.

No pictures of the wine and cheese, alas. But you can see how lovely the store is, and if you ever visit my city, I promise to take you there, and let you buy me a book.

A reading by Alissa York, Camilla Gibb

and Kate Taylor occurred a few days ago in my part of the world.  I wasn’t acquainted with Taylor’s work, but I knew and liked the others’ writing, and so made it a point to attend. Despite my son’s bathroom incident, I arrived before the event began (albeit after everyone else was seated).

It was a memorable evening, and not only account of the  unlimited FREE wine. First, I was the only person of color in the entire room. You’d think I’d be used to that by now. Second, I think I was the only person under  forty in the audience.  I hesitate to generalize, but: thirty-somethings, it’s  time to discover fiction that isn’t a  vampire/Vatican conspiracy.  And because I should stop talking about myself and start on the authors, I’ll come to the third notable feature later.

The most important thing you should know about Camilla Gibb is that she isn’t human. She has a ten-week old baby, and instead of looking like her body and soul were ripped apart by childbirth not long ago, appears to have recently exited a spa. When my son was ten weeks old, I was a whimpering blob leaking bodily fluids from orifices whose existence I hadn’t reckoned upon, and I’d forget  stuff like shutting refrigerator doors or buttoning up a shirt.  Gibb was articulate and collected, her left shoe matched her right, and even though she confessed to feeling tired all the time,  I didn’t really believe her. Anyway. Gibb read the opening chapter of her new novel  The Beauty of Humanity Movement, set in Vietnam. The reading style was quiet, for Gibb didn’t really work the text, relying on the prose instead to supply dramatic effect. The overall impression was one of restraint and intelligence.

In comparison, Alissa York’s reading from her new novel Fauna was filled with drama. York read a section packed with  dialogue, and she carried it off effortlessly; even though the characters spoke in short, non-specific sentence, I never had trouble following the conversation (it helped that I had read the book). Her performance was full of passion and flair, and  I wondered at one point if she had a background in theatre–she was that good.  The crowd, well-lubricated by wine and by Gibb’s earlier effort,  loved it.

.Fauna cover

Next came Taylor ( I’m not talking about her as I still haven’t read her work), and then came  question time, where my impressions of the two authors crystallized further. York’s vivid charm showed to full advantage when talking to the crowd; Gibb was a bit more intimidating (I doubt anyone would ask her to read their unpublished work-of-genius). Then we all got up to circulate and chat with the writers, and it was at that time that I discovered the Third Thing: I was, possibly, the shortest person in the room. Dear blog readers, I am a hair under  5′ 4″, but I have never felt so hobbit-like. When I went to talk to York, she had to hunch over as though rolling up a stocking to get to my eye-level. And Gibb’s at least six feet, so I’m not going there. Add to their height their savoir-faire and their talent, and Gibb and York literally seemed like Big People to my short, insignificant, second-breakfast eating self.   Or perhaps I am normal, and the two have merely been at the Ent water. But I think not.

And as for the books themselves, I’m reviewing both for other publications  and will post those pieces in due course. But here are the publisher blurbs FYI.

FAUNA: In her highly anticipated new novel, Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated author Alissa York creates a contemporary human fable that taps into the great tenderness and drama at the heart of the animal world.
The wide ravine that bisects the city is home to countless species of urban wildlife, including human waifs and strays. When Edal Jones can’t cope with the casual cruelty she encounters in her job as a federal wildlife officer, she finds herself drawn to a beacon of solace nestled in the valley under the unlikely banner of an auto-wrecker’s yard. Guy Howell, the handsome proprietor, offers sanctuary to animals and people alike: a half-starved hawk and a brood of orphaned raccoon kits, a young soldier whose spirit failed him during his first tour of duty, a teenage runaway and her massive black dog. Guy is well versed in the delicate workings of damaged beings, and he might just stand a chance at mending Edal’s heart.
But before love can bloom, the little community must come to terms with a different breed of lost soul — a young man whose brutal backwoods childhood is catching up with him, causing him to persecute the creatures that call the valley home.

BEAUTY…:Maggie, an art curator who is Vietnamese by birth but who has lived most of her life in the United States, has returned to her country of origin in search of clues to her dissident father’s disappearance. She remembers him only in fragments, as an injured artist from whom she and her mother were separated during the war. In her journey, Maggie finds herself at a makeshift pho stall, where the rich aroma of beef noodle soup lures people off Hanoi’s busy streets and into a quiet morning ritual.
Old Man Hung, the enlightened proprietor of the beloved pho stall, has survived decades of poverty and political upheaval. Hung once had a shop that served as a meeting place for dissident artists. As Maggie discovers, this old man may hold the key to both her past and her future.
Among Hung’s most faithful customers is Tu’, a dynamic young tour guide who works for a company called New Dawn. Tu’ leads tourists through the city, including American vets on war tours, but he has begun to wonder what it is they are seeing of Vietnam-and what they miss entirely. In Maggie, he finds a young Americanized woman in search of something quite different, leading him beyond his realm of expertise. In sensual, interwoven narratives, Maggie, Hung, and Tu’ come together in a highly charged season that will mark all of them forever.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a skillfully wrought novel about the reverberation of conflict through generations, the enduring legacy of art, and the redemption and renewal of love. The story of these characters is tinged with longing for worlds and loved ones lost but also filled with the hope that faith can heal the pain of their shared country’s turbulent past. This is the distinct and complex story of contemporary Vietnam, a country undergoing momentous change, and a story of how family is defined-not always by bloodlines, but by heart.

Green Books Campaign: Can’tLit

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

Can’tLit: Fearless Fiction from Broken Pencil Magazine by Richard Rosenbaum, ed.

ECW Press, 2009

Printed on FSC-certified paper, Ancient Forest Friendly Paper

I was an admirer of Canadian Literature (CanLit) long before I came to Canada, counting Clara Callan, Unless, A Fine Balance, and about a hundred other Canadian books amongst my favorites. Back then, I didn’t think of these novels as particularly Canadian; if asked what they had in common, I’d have said: their desire to probe delicately at the stuff of our daily lives, to reveal small truths with wry humor, and to write measured, gentlemanly prose that never sought to dazzle, but worked hard at staying in the background.

Since moving to Canada (from England), my access to CanLit has broadened, but my initial perception of Canadian writing hasn’t altered materially. Inevitably, when I’ve looked for edgy work, I’ve always looked outside the country. Canadian writing is notable for many things, but not for unconventional writing eager to take risks.  The very qualities that appeal sometimes seem to limit it–CanLit can seem to willfully circumscribe itself by an unwonted insistence on gravitas and sedateness. Of course there are exceptions (the wonderful and woefully under-appreciated Elyse Friedman comes to mind), but in general, avant-garde writing appears to have few champions in this country.

All this leads to the book I’m writing about: Can’tLit, an anthology showcasing some of the best fiction published in Broken Pencil, a journal devoted to independent arts. The title is an unequivocal statement that the literary climate of Canada does not encourage edgy experimental writing. Hal Niedzviecki, fiction editor of Broken Pencil, writes in his foreword that the magazine publishes “only the most desperate writing, only the stuff that got kicked out of the house before limping over to our office with no place else to go. […] These stories are outcasts. They don’t fit into traditional CanLit…” And assistant fiction editor Richard Rosenbaum says, “You may have noticed that the writing we tend to prize most highly here [in Canada…] is the cold, dull, pastoral, stuff. Little girls growing up in small towns or old women dying in them. The stuff written by people named Margaret.” He adds that “there is a need for [] sharp, offensive urban fiction, for all that all-around weird shit, in the otherwise mostly bland and soulless field of the Canadian literary scene.”

Despite the hyperbole (OTT!), despite Rosenbaum’s low regard for the Margarets  (I wept over The Stone Angel, not being forced to read it in high school and all), I’m sympathetic to his cause. The raison d’etre for this book in essence is CanLit’s insiderism, its refusal to acknowledge or legitimize writing and writers who aren’t easy to label.  Let me stick my neck out and say it: I agree that it is pretty tough for an outsider to break into the Canadian publishing scene, for the gate-keepers of CanLit sometimes appear to welcome new blood only if it matches their type. The notable exception is small presses and progressive magazines, most of  which genuinely encourage new writers and new writing. And with this campaign, I now know of another such venue–the very cool ECW Press, which published this book.

The obvious issue with reviewing a book like Can’tLit is that an excess of edge can be fatal to one’s reading pleasure, like a repast consisting solely of amuse bouches. I got around that problem by reading no more than three stories a day. The pieces vary in widely in length–some two hundred words, and some ten times that. And even as they vary in length, they vary in quality. Neidzviecki warns in his foreword that a few of the stories “might even be badly written”, and he is spot-on. Inasmuch as this assessment depends more heavily than usual on the reviewer’s personal taste, some of the pieces simply try too hard, like a teenager who swears because he thinks it’s shocking. Dude, an overuse of Caps Lock and references to sex don’t make a piece edgy.

But there are some stunners here; the editors of Canada’s finest lit. mags. were apparently  afflicted with collective myopia. There’s “Gynecomastia”, a story about a flat-chested girl acquiring a boyfriend with man-boobs. “Sickness” is memorable as much for its compassion as its perfect execution. There’s  “Natural Selection”, about a relationship featuring eccentric but uneasily familiar characters. There’s angst in these stories, but there’s playfulness too, and the writers are obviously beckoning to the readers to join in the game. Can’tLit makes it clear that there is no dearth of Canadian writers willing to push the boundaries of what words can do. Broken Pencil and ECW Press: for championing the weird, the uncomfortable, the unknown, and the obscure, and all on green paper, I want to buy you a large alcoholic beverage each. Tell me when and where.


Random Bookish Stuff #2

Sloughing off my dealings with ethically-challenged magazines and focusing on my upcoming reviews.

1. My review of TOK 5, a collection of stories and poems about immigrant Toronto, will appear in the forthcoming issue of This, a progressive Canadian magazine. Contributors to the anthology include M.G.Vassanji, Emma Donoghue, Shyam Selvadurai, Nalo Hopkinson, and several talented newbies. TOK 5 is published by Diaspora Dialogues, an organization which “supports the creation and presentation of new fiction, poetry and drama that reflect the complexity of the city [Toronto] through the eyes of its richly diverse writers. Publishing and mentoring activities, as well as a monthly multidisciplinary performance festival, help encourage the creation of a literature that is vibrant and inclusive, while bringing these works to a wide audience.”

What’s not to love?

2. The thing about books is that they’re made from mashed-up trees.  Eco-Libris is running a campaign to promote green books by reviewing “books printed on recycled paper or FSC-certified paper. [Their] goal is to use the power of the internet and social media to promote “green” books and increase the awareness of both readers and publishers to the way books can be printed printed in an eco-friendly manner.” so, on Nov. 10, “200 bloggers will take a stand to support books printed on environmental paper by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 such books.”

I’m happy to be part of that multitude, and I’ll be reviewing Can’t Lit (ECW Press), a collection of edgy Canadian short stories. Yes, edgy can appear in the same sentence as CanLit, except the latter’s then called Can’t Lit. See?

3. I’m going to be reviewing Fauna by Alyssa York for Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine.  From the publisher’s site: “The wide ravine that bisects the city is home to countless species of urban wildlife, including human waifs and strays. When Edal Jones can’t cope with the casual cruelty she encounters in her job as a federal wildlife officer, she finds herself drawn to a beacon of solace nestled in the valley under the unlikely banner of an auto-wrecker’s yard. Guy Howell, the handsome proprietor, offers sanctuary to animals and people alike: a half-starved hawk and a brood of orphaned raccoon kits, a young soldier whose spirit failed him during his first tour of duty, a teenage runaway and her massive black dog. Guy is well versed in the delicate workings of damaged beings, and he might just stand a chance at mending Edal’s heart.”

Damn, I wish they hadn’t made a point of mentioning Howell’s handsomeness. I suspect the book is a lot better than this sappy summary would have us believe.

4. I’m about a third into, and thus far enjoying, Aatish Taseer’s novel The Temple-Goers, a book firmly set in Delhi, a city I’ve spent much time in and mostly dislike. From the publisher: “A young man returns home to Delhi after several years abroad and resumes his place among the city’s cosmopolitan elite – a world of fashion designers, media moguls and the idle rich. But everything around him has changed – new roads, new restaurants, new money, new crime – everything, that is, except for the people, who are the same, only maybe slightly worse. Then he meets Aakash, a charismatic and unpredictable young man on the make, who introduces him to the squalid underside of this sprawling city. Together they get drunk and work out, visit temples and a prostitute, and our narrator finds himself disturbingly attracted to Aakash’s world. ”

I’m deleting the rest of the summary because it includes a spoiler. Whoever wrote it was really idiotic inconsiderate.

5. Just finished reading Laila Lalami’s beautifully-written Secret Son. From the publisher: “Youssef el-Mekki, a young man of nineteen, is living with his mother in the slums of Casablanca when he discovers that the father he believed to be dead is, in fact, alive and eager to befriend and support him. Leaving his mother behind, Youssef assumes a life he could only dream of: a famous and influential father, his own penthouse apartment, and all the luxuries associated with his new status. His future appears assured until an abrupt reversal of fortune sends him back to the streets and his childhood friends, where a fringe Islamic group, known simply as the Party, has set up its headquarters. ”

Before I write my review, I want to re-read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education–the two books seem intimately connected, and I suspect my piece would be incomplete otherwise.

6. I want to review about 10 other books before the year ends. So, starting today,  I’m not accepting any unsolicited requests for book reviews till next year. Please write to me in Jan. 2011 if you want me to consider reviewing your work.

7. Women’s Web is running a contest for blog posts on your fave female character in fiction.  Easy-peasy, and there are prizes! Visit their site for more information.

Canadian Book Challenge #4

I’m not a big fan of blog challenges–they are sometimes a bit frantic, and reading is, or should be, a slow pleasure.  But I’ve signed up for a couple this year for causes I believe in, like the Person of Color challenge.  I’m also signing up for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge–to  read and review thirteen books by Canadian authors over the next twelve months. I’d signed up for the first challenge, and I discovered a couple of terrific Canadian authors in the process–Alistair Macleod, for one, and Joy Kogawa. (I also read some purveyors of deadly boring CanLit, but the law of averages made that inevitable). If you are interested in Canadian writing, do check out this one at The Book Mine Set.

This challenge, I’m shooting for thirteen different genres of books–mystery, YA, picture book, memoir and so on. (I’m defining genre very loosely.) Books I’ve read thus far for the challenge:
1. 500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill (Graphic novel)
2. How it all Vegan by Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard (Cookbook)

2 books by mid-July! If things keep up, I will turn into one of those bloggers who comments regularly and tracks feed subscribers and maintains a blogroll. You know, a real one.

The Last River Child by Lori Ann Bloomfield

Last River ChildThis debut novel by Toronto writer Lori Ann Bloomfield offers many riches: a vivid potted history of Canada in the time surrounding WWI, a nicely detailed account of small town life in rural Ontario, plus a rousing reminder of why the women’s movement was necessary in the first place.

A river child is an evil spirit that lives in a river, waiting to drown children in order to assume their shape and then live on land. The river child brings bad luck, withering crops and killing farm animals. Or so the inhabitants of the small village of Walvern in Ontario, Canada believe.  

The arrival of a meteorite during Peg’s baptism, combined with the fact of her pale eyes and her habit of walking by the river soon make the villagers suspect that Peg is indeed the dreaded spirit. Crazy stuff, yes, but not back in the early nineteen hundreds, when religion and superstition were inextricably knotted together, and not in rural Ontario, where the failure of one crop could result in permanent tragedy for a family. 

As is usually the case, enough coincidences occur to rapidly cement the belief amongst  the villagers that Peg is a river child. But despite being a social outcast, Peg grows up loving Walvern, even as her sister Sarah longs to get away to the big city. It takes nothing less than a World War to shake the good villagers out of their silliness and superstitions.   

Apart from a too-tidy ending for my taste, this novel is finely shaped and paced, and very readable indeed.  But Bloomfield at times pulls her punches—the story doesn’t quite deliver the emotional goods the outline suggests, mostly because the adult Peg’s internal life isn’t realized deeply enough.  (The first part of the novel, which deals with the young Peg and her mother, is near perfect). Bloomfield holds back when she should burrow her way into her protagonist’s heart, with the result that I didn’t care for Peg as passionately as I might have.  For instance, (SEMI-SPOILER WARNING!) when Sarah runs away to Toronto leaving Peg to manage the farm single-handedly, Peg is “consumed by rage” at Sarah’s selfishness. “Beneath the rage, determination began to glow, forged in the heat of her fury. A plan started to form in her mind. She only needed to feed herself and a few of the animals.”  The thrill of evoked emotion is mild with this sort of writing.  The bottom line: The Last River Child is a promising debut, definitely good if not great.  

PS: This book is published by a lovely little feminist publishing house  Second Story Press. Do check out their site, for their other offerings look pretty interesting too.

Poetics of Dissent: The Fourth Canvas by Rana Bose

While reading a thriller, I anticipate — and usually get — a twisty, testosterone-ridden plot. If I’m lucky, there’s a strong female character; really lucky, a good sex scene. What I don’t expect: a theory of socio-political hegemony centered around the idea of dissent. But Rana Bose’s The Fourth Canvas is a novel of ideas as much as a thriller, with enough red herrings to make Agatha Christie proud, and enough progressive ideas to satisfy the most ardent activist.

 Claude Chiragi, a doctoral student at McGill, has just received a birthday present from his girlfriend Clara. To his relief, the large flat package isn’t an Ikea piece in malevolent wait for assembly. Rather, Clara has come up with the goods — a painting by the political philosopher Guillermo Sanchez, who also happens to be the subject of Claude’s research. Sanchez, who died in 1974, was the author of a few articles, and a book on Mexican history — slim pickings for a thesis. The hitherto unknown painting will provide Claude material for his floundering PhD.

The canvas depicts a city landscape full of characters seemingly in fear of an impending calamity. Only one woman seems exempt from the malaise; her face is calm, even eager. Hidden in the painting are the words “Two periods of rise, followed by two periods of decline.”

Apparently, a theory of empire has been painted into the canvas, which seems but one in a series. And if further incentive to explore the canvas’s provenance was needed — the calm-faced woman in the painting seems to be moving. And so Claude and Clara set off on a quest to unearth all of Sanchez’s canvases. First stop: Cuba, where they’ll meet a friend of Sanchez.

In the manner of all good thrillers, the adventure is also a voyage of self-discovery. This being The Fourth Canvas rather than The Fourth Protocol, Claude and Clara don’t realize an unexpected affinity for grenade launchers or a talent for blending into foreign locales. While Claude plunges deep into Sanchez’s intellectual argument, Clara rediscovers her Argentinean roots — her father and brother disappeared during the country’s Dirty War, and Clara had hitherto suppressed these memories in favor of a cool citizen-of-the-world Montrealer persona. As Sanchez’s theory of the role of dissent in the collapse of empires becomes clearer, Claude and Clara are unable to lead their former passive lives. The canvases have changed not just their worldview, but their notions of their own roles in the fight for social justice.

The Fourth Canvas also features several secondary narratives, including that of one Diana McLaren, a professor of political philosophy in Montreal who is Claude’s father’s partner, and another featuring Sanchez’s sister Lydia. Bose gathers these seemingly random threads together by way of an abduction, a misty mountain hop through the Andes, and a case of mistaken identity, through to a satisfyingly dramatic (and devious) denouement.

Rana Bose is an engineer, a magazine editor and playwright, and The Fourth Canvas showcases each one of his métiers. In his acknowledgement, Bose states that his theatre background leads him to “launch torrents of ideas on the stage,” and indeed, The Fourth Canvas at times is all but submerged under expositions on every possible idea or event, from the film Ghost Dog to The Beastie Boys to cricket. Many of these riffs are at best tangentially related to the plot, and often take place on the flimsiest of pretexts; the only reason I forgive the author such self-indulgence is because everything he has to say is so damn interesting. Consider Bose’s description of the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris:

“If a cemetery could, however, be accused of name-dropping in a display of turf arrogance, this would be the place…Chopin has a muse weeping, Oscar Wilde has a winged messenger calling him away…[There] lie the graves of Laura Marx, Karl’s daughter, and Paul Lefargue, who committed suicide together in 1911.”

If this doesn’t send you haring off to Wikipedia, nothing will.

But Bose the novelist is perhaps closest to Bose the editor of the alternative webzine Montreal Serai, a publication whose stated aim is to give a voice to people at the margins. As a character in The Fourth Canvas says “Legitimacy is hogged by the mainstream. [But] the people on the periphery are just as legitimate.” Bose’s novel not only reinforces the importance of dissent, but presents a vision for a new wave of popular resistance that co-opts people from the peripheries of every country on the planet. That he’s chosen to convey his ideas in such an accessible literary genre is altogether fitting. Even thrilling.


(This review appears in the current issue of