Contemporary Adult Reading for Strong Teen Readers: A Canadian Sampler
Joanne de Groot, Gail de Vos, Heather Ganshorn, Ingrid Johnston, and Jill Kedersha McClay
The 2007 list of contemporary adult Canadian books with potential reading appeal for good teenage readers is the twelfth such list to be produced, and contains many diverse and lively titles. No doubt it would have been possible to enlarge this list significantly from the pool of excellent Canadian material published in the past year or so, but even the relatively short sampler of books listed below offers much stimulating and fascinating reading.
As usual, the selection presumes that a reader strong enough to tackle the complexities of the titles on offer is a reader who does not need to be sheltered from sex, violence and/or bad language. As a result of this presumption, we do not filter for these components. Our main selection criterion is that a book should have something to say to a relatively young reader. Other lists may feature excellent books about middle and old age; this list features many younger protagonists and subjects with youth appeal.
As usual, also, the list is much strengthened by the fact that a number of readers have contributed to the overall total. My thanks to all of them, as well as to the editors of Resource Links who make this space available to us every year. Each review is initialled by its creator.
In 2006, to mark the tenth anniversary of the column, with the help of the Faculty of Education Alumni at the University of Alberta, we produced a print compilation of the decade of recommended lists. We mounted this list online and undertook to update the electronic version every spring. The new online list, incorporating titles from last year’s column is now available at http://www.ualberta.ca/~mmackey/adultbooklist2007.pdf ; next spring we will integrate the titles that appear in this current list into the overall compendium. We hope that refreshing the selections in this way will maintain the complete list as a useful tool.
The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson. Toronto: Knopf, 2006. Hardback. 359 pages. 978-0676977462
Mary Lawson’s stunning second novel (the first was the award winning Crow Lake) is the story of two brothers Arthur and Jake Dunn growing up on a Northern Ontario farm in the years leading up to the Second World War. Although brothers, Arthur and Jake could not be more different: Arthur is dependable and dutiful and ready to take on the responsibilities of the family farm. Jake is charismatic, outgoing, and dangerous to know. Their fragile relationship is pulled even tauter with the arrival of Laura, the beautiful daughter of the town’s new minister.
Fast forward 20 years when Ian Christopherson, the teenage son of the town’s doctor, takes a job on the Dunn farm in order to be close to Laura, the object of his obsession. Young and idealistic and sure he knows the difference between right and wrong, Ian unwittingly becomes the catalyst that forces the past and the present to collide with great force. Told in alternating chapters, The Other Side of the Bridge seamlessly weaves together the stories of Arthur and Jake Dunn, Laura, and Ian Christopherson.
This book is a novel of jealousy, obsession, family, and friendship that will pull readers in from the first page. It is, however, a hard book to capture in a review without giving away too much information from the many sub-plots, so a strong recommendation will have to replace further details of the story. JdG
Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007. Hardback. 273 pages. 098-0-7710-6872-0
Anna, Claire and Cooper grow up as siblings but are actually not related by blood. Nevertheless, Claire always thinks of them as "athree-panelled Japanese screen, each one self-sufficient, but revealing different qualities of tones when placed beside the others" (156).
This is a story of many such panels: one story opens onto another, which then alters the initial story in the way it reflects back onto it. The result is an intricate unfolding of contemporary and historical stories.
It sounds like a complicated read but it is actually very accessible. The three protagonists move from youth into adulthood with their stories separating and meeting. They also move from place to place and Ondaatje is powerful yet paradoxically delicate in his evocation of different worlds and values.
In short, an intriguing book that keeps readers turning the pages, one that begs to be re-read so that the final understandings can reflect back onto the first in something resembling a full circle - although Ondaatje is far too subtle to be quite as neat and tidy as this image would indicate. It is the kind of book where even the loose ends are satisfying. MM
No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997. Paperback. 247 pages. 0-77376-002-4.
This book didn't make much of a splash when it was first published, but it got some well-deserved press in 2005, when it was one of the chosen books for CBC Radio's Canada Reads program. This is an incisive look at racial politics in Montreal in the 1940s, but it is also a lovely family story. Marion Willow is a black widow raising two of her own daughters and a foster daughter. She works two jobs as a maid, but is determined that her daughters will go to college. She is wooed by Edmond Wilson, a handsome railway porter, but she turns down his marriage proposals because she is afraid marriage to him would prevent her from raising her daughters the way she wishes. Pippa, the eldest daughter, is a particularly lovely character. Her imaginative flair for the dramatic and her sensitive nature remind one of Anne of Green Gables (Pippa is a fan of L.M. Montgomery). The loving mother-daughter relationships and close community ties make for a heartwarming story, yet it never descends into excess sentimentality.
Montreal comes alive as a vibrant cultural centre whose black artists are influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. A youthful Oscar Peterson puts in a cameo appearance. Yet racism is also keenly felt. Educated men are forced to take work as railway porters, and one of the female characters, who is of mixed blood, passes for white in order to work in the sheet music department of the local department store. With its sympathetic characters, excellent storytelling, and nuanced Canadian portrayal of race relations, this book is an excellent alternative to that old English curriculum chestnut, To Kill a Mockingbird. HG
The Ladies' Lending Library by Janice Kulyk Keefer. Toronto: HarperCollins 2007. Hardback. 288 pages. 978-0-00-200743-6
Anybody who has ever spent a summer, or even a weekend, at a cottage anywhere in Canada will find something to recognize in this book. Set in 1963 (the movie Cleopatra and the associated scandal involving Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a significant role in the lives of some of the characters), it tells the stories of the mothers
and children who come to Kalyna Beach every year, to bake in the sun,to observe their neighbours' tribulations, and to grow up a little or a lot. Kalyna Beach is occupied by Ukrainian Canadian families - the mothers remember the Old Country; the kids are not interested.
The family relationships, some loving and some hostile, are entirely convincing, and the author's selection of the details that intensify and/or reveal these relationships is inspired. The girls, the boys, the mothers, and one father are presented eloquently - though their own lack of eloquence is an element held in common by nearly everybody.
Summer stability, summer changes, immigrant life, cross-generational misunderstandings, life in an ingrown community (many of these
characters are related by blood or marriage), all these components of life at this particular set of cottages are conveyed so vividly that he haze and the heat of that summer sun seems to illuminate the pages. A very engaging novel. MM
Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2007 (2006). Paperback. 432 pages. 978-0676976052
Badami has followed the success of her previous two novels, Tamarind Mem and The Hero’s Walk, with this fascinating new novel that tells the stories of three women in India and Canada over more than 40 years. Each woman’s life is related as a separate story but linked with those of the other two. Their stories cover a time span from 1947, at the time of Partition in India, to the bombing of the Air India flight in 1985. Bibi-ji is the most colourful of the three women. She emigrates to Vancouver where she sets up a restaurant with her husband, and achieves wealth and status among the Sikh community. Her life is marred by her lack of children and the disappearance of her sister during Partition in India . Her life intersects with that of her neighbour Leela, also an immigrant from India, who struggles to create a new hybrid identity for herself in Canada. The third woman, Nimmo, is orphaned by Partition and trying to rebuild her life with her family in Delhi. Badami gradually reveals how the personal lives of the three women are linked and how their fortunes are overshadowed by political situations in India and Canada.
The novel offers imaginative insights into immigrant experiences, revealing ties of love and family and the devastation of war and personal loss. The book creates a strong sense of place and character, and is at times humorous, other times poignant and tragic. It is a powerful and engaging read. IJ
The Perfect Circle by Pascale Quiviger. Translator Sheila Fischman. Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2006 (2004). Paperback. 224 pages. 978-1896951966
This reflective novel on the nature of love won the Governor General’s award for fiction in French in 1994, and was a Giller Prize finalist in 2006 in English translation. The protagonist, Marianne, meets and falls madly in love with Marco while she is vacationing in Italy. Marco lives in a small village in Tuscany and has a habit of leaving Marianne to spend her days alone, then joining her for the occasional evening of conversation and tenderness. When she returns home to Montreal, Marianne cannot get Marco out of her head and returns to Italy to pursue her passion. She discovers that Marco is very much under the control of his mother and the love she hopes for falls short of her expectations. This is an interior novel with a beautiful sense of language that will appeal to a certain type of reader. IJ
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town by Cory Doctorow. New York: Tor Books, 2006 (2005). Paperback. 320 pages. 978-0765312808.
Alan, the hero of Doctorow's latest novel, is a bit of a misfit, and no wonder. His father is a mountain, his mother is a washing machine, and his brothers consist of an island, a dead man, and three Russian nesting dolls. As bizarre as this premise sounds, Alan is a likable, remarkably human character (well, almost human -- he regrows missing limbs, salamander-like). As the novel opens, Alan is living in Toronto in peaceful middle age, fixing up an old house and planning to write a novel. However, his tranquil life is disturbed by his undead brother, who is seeking revenge on the other brothers for murdering him. While trying to rescue his missing nesting-doll brothers, Alan finds time to involve himself in a cyber-punk friend's plot to build a free wireless network that covers the city of Toronto. He also falls in love with the girl next door, a peculiar being who has wings, which she cuts back on a regular basis so she can pass for normal. Though the characters and events are bizarre, the book is really about familiar themes: family problems, alienation, trust and friendship. This and other books by Cory Doctorow are free online at http://www.craphound.com/index.php?cat=5. HG
Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay. Toronto: Viking Canada. Hardback. 416 pages. 978-0-670-04321-7.
In his newest novel, Kay has inverted his recent pattern of exploring the present through the backdrop of the historical past, either real or imagined. This book presents the modern world, with all its foibles, wars and gadgets, that, through the machinations of two fifteen-year-olds, becomes embroiled with mythical characters of a very distant past. Montreal native Ned Marriner is living in Aix-en-Provence with his famous father and his father’s crew of photographers. Ned’s mother is in the Sudan, a member of Doctors Without Borders. While exploring his new environment, Ned meets a young exchange student from New York. Together, they meet a trio of mythical spirits who enact a cyclical love-triangle. This time, however, Ned’s involvement spirals the cycle totally off course as one of his father’s crew becomes the embodiment of Ysabel, the beautiful and highly desirable focus of the two male members of the centuries-old battle.
Kay’s prose is extremely accessible, the dialogue between the two teens and amongst the adults believable, and the action non-stop. The reader discovers, along with Ned, the extent of his involvement and his powers. Friendship, loyalty, and family commitment are also strong themes in the novel which explores, through its fantastical elements, the nature of individual identity and acceptance of differences.
Highly recommended. GdV
Spook Country by William Gibson. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007. Hardback. 371 pages. 978-0-399-15430-0
A review of William Gibson’s work suggests that the Vancouver author wrote science fiction until the real world became stranger than anything he could invent. Be that as it may, this story is set in the current world; the action begins in February 2006 and Gibson refers both to contemporary political occurrences and also to ground-breaking technological events.
The book is a complex thriller, focused on three main characters whose stories are told in alternating chapters. Hollis Henry was once a rock singer but she now hopes to make a living working as a journalist, and is currently writing a story on locative art (digital representations overlaid by means of GPS onto real landscape, visible only to those with the right VR equipment). Tito is a Chinese-Cuban whose family has a long history of working underground. Milgrim is a drug addict, kept captive by means of his dependency, so that his decoding skills can be put to work for a cause that is both mysterious and sinister. All of these characters eventually converge in the pursuit of a shipping container that is travelling the world and never landing, like a contemporary Flying Dutchman. Lurking in the background is Hubertus Bigend, a mysterious magnate who first appeared in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.
In this complicated and absorbing story, it is never quite clear who is on whose side. What does seem clear is that the underground world of the “spooks” is overlaid onto our own universe, if only we could see it. The book demands a very attentive reading and offers an invitation to apply the same quality of attention to our political, cultural and financial assumptions. MM
Consolation by Michael Redhill. Toronto: Anchor Canada 2007 (2006). Paperback. 469 pages. 978-0-385-65951-2
This novel is a story of lost and found. It moves between two centuries, the mid-nineteenth and the late-twentieth, exploring Toronto in its early years and in its current incarnation. It is also a story of new media, the nineteenth-century new medium of photography in particular.
What Jem Hallam, one-time apothecary and photographer, loses in the nineteenth century, David Hollis and then his widow Marianne hope to find in the twentieth: the glass negatives of a set of photographs of daily life in Toronto in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Redhill presents both the story of how the photographs came to exist in the first place, and the story of their threatened loss, buried underneath a new building. Both stories are redolent of time and place; the place is the same but the times are radically different. and these similarities and differences form a major part of the appeal of this book.
Hallam's agony over leaving his wife and small daughters in England while he attempts to make a go of life as an apothecary in Toronto is vivid and believable. Hollis's efforts to find and save the photos as his own life wastes away are also powerfully presented. The location of the photographs acts as a pivot point between the two stories.
Anybody who ever looks at a contemporary street and wonders, "What was it like here before?" will find something to enjoy in this evocative and appealing story. MM
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007 (2006). Paperback. 331 pages. 978-0-00-639155-5
Gruen’s book is a delightfully entertaining read. She draws readers effortlessly into the world of the circus during the Depression seen through the eyes of Jacob Jankowski, an orphaned and penniless young man with veterinary skills and a love of animals. The novel depicts moments of humour, whimsy, outrage and cruelty, underpinned by Jacob’s dedication to his beloved elephant, Rosie, and his love for the beautiful wife of the sadistic animal trainer. The story is narrated as a retrospective by Jacob as an old man, confined to a nursing home and plotting to make his escape from the smothering attention he receives there. The shifts in time and place are skilful and effective and the resulting novel is a warm and whimsical tale of poverty, love, deception and the triumph of the will. IJ
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. Toronto ON: HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd. 2007. Hardback. 486 pages. 978-0002255073
This gripping, often harrowing novel is an astonishing work, weaving historical fact and imagination in a tour de force of storytelling. Through the narration of Aminata Diallo, Lawrence Hill tells the story of 18th century slavery as it spanned three continents: North America, Europe, and Africa. Aminata Diallo's happy childhood in the African village of Bayo is shattered when she is kidnapped by slave traders. Yoked at the neck and tethered to her fellow sufferers of all ages and conditions, she is marched for months toward the ocean and then herded onto a slave ship bound for Charles Town, South Carolina. Sold into plantation slavery, Aminata works many years in the South before being taken to New York just before the outbreak of the American War for Independence. From there, the narrative traces her life among the free blacks of New York, where she eventually enters her name into the "Book of Negroes" for the British evacuation of so-called Black Loyalists to Nova Scotia. She learns that freedom in Nova Scotia brings oppression and dangers, too. Later, she takes the opportunity to emigrate back to Africa, with former slaves who establish the settlement of Freetown in Sierra Leone. Near the end of her life, Aminata journeys to England at the behest of English Abolitionists to become a powerful witness and living testament to the barbarity of slavery. Although everyone she loves is stolen from her in one way or another, Aminata knows that her mind is her one inviolable possession. The voice of Aminata has the ring of authenticity, and Hill has created a truly memorable, rich characterization. His imaginative scope encompasses the full range of human brutality and goodness. This is a novel that will remain in readers' hearts for many years. JKM
De Niro's Game by Rawe Hage. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007 (2006). Paperback. 278 pages. 978-0-88784-765-3
It is hard to look at the carnage in Baghdad that we see nightly on our televisions and imagine a lyrical novel in such a setting. Yet Hage's novel about the equally ravaged streets of Beirut in the 1980s achieves lyricism on every page - along with a penetrating picture of what happens to human beings in such a setting: to their principles, their loyalties, their friendships and enmities.
Bassam and George have been friends since childhood but the ongoing demolition of Lebanon in a civil war puts their relationship under unendurable strains. Bassam tells the story of his life in a war-torn city, increasingly violent, vicious and cruel. As a young man, he learns to cheat, lie, be brutalized and brutalize in return. Yet his descriptions, in long, loping, rhythmic sentences, are moving and powerful, no matter how wretched the content.
"Remarkable" is an overworked word in book reviews, but this book truly is astonishing. It is impossible to read it without wondering how any decency could survive in such dreadful surroundings. The young narrator, Bassam, is unsentimental about his own damaged character and about the daily, even routine nature of the violence all around him. This unflinching story is profoundly memorable. MM
Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007. Hardback. 304 pages. 978-0670066124
On July 11, 2003, Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was murdered in Iran's infamous Evin prison, a place most Canadians had never heard of before. Now, Iranian-Canadian Marina Nemat throws open the doors of Evin in this beautiful, compassionate memoir.
In 1982, sixteen-year-old Marina, a Christian living in Tehran, walked out of a calculus class to protest her school's increasing move towards religious fanaticism in the aftermath of Iran's Islamic Revolution. The other students followed her, so her action became a "crime" for which she was arrested, imprisoned in Evin, tortured, and sentenced to death. In a stranger-than-fiction twist, one of her interrogators fell in love with her and intervened to save her life, but at a price: she must marry him and convert to Islam.
Nemat's account of her time in Evin, her friendships with other prisoners, and the grief that accompanied the execution of several of her friends, is incredibly moving. The story of her marriage to Ali, her captor, is fascinating. The wonderful thing about this book is the complexity of its characters. Ali is not a black-and-white evil character, and his family, though opposed to the marriage, accepts it and treats Marina with more affection than she ever received from her own parents. Despite all she has endured, Marina fights her urge to hate and urges forgiveness and compassion as the only way forward in a society riven by violence. Such a message, coming from someone who has been so viciously wronged, is absolutely inspiring. HG
Unstolen by Wendy Jean. London, UK: Pan Books, 2006. Hardback. 311 pages.
Wendy Jean’s first novel was inspired by the abduction of Michael Dunahee from a playground in Victoria, B.C. in 1991. Although young adults today will probably not remember this case, these readers will be drawn into this story of Bethany Fisher, the ‘unstolen’ child whose entire life has been shaped by the stories of her brother, Michael.
Bethany’s brother was abducted at the age of four, when Bethany herself was a baby. As she states in the book, “the thing about being the unstolen one is that you’d better be strong, you’d better stay safe, you’d better not rock any boats or surely they will sink. People depend on you, people who can’t take any more stress in their lives, and you’d
better count yourself lucky because after all, you weren’t taken, you’re still here and you’d better be grateful for all that’s been given to you because your brother sure didn’t get anything.” Told in alternating sections, Unstolen tells two parallel stories. First, is a
contemporary story of Bethany, now a college graduate, and her mother, who follows a man home from the grocery store and commits a terrible crime. The aftermath of this event changes Bethany and her family again and forces her to re-evaluate her past. The second storyline takes place 20 years before and tells the story of Bethany, growing up in the shadow of her brother’s abduction. The two stories ultimately merge as Bethany
confronts the past and moves towards the future. Unstolen is a fast paced novel with interesting and engaging characters who will appeal to young adults readers. JdeG
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Paperback. 330 pages. 978-006-0875077
Thirteen year old Baby knows how tough life can be on the streets. She has grown up, motherless, with a drug-addicted father, moving between derelict downtown Montreal apartments. Jules, her father, is more concerned with his heroin habit than he is with his daughter. Left mainly to her own devices growing up, Baby moves from an uneasy and
difficult childhood to the often disturbing, dangerous adult world that exists all around her. It isn’t until Baby gets involved with a charming and outgoing neighbourhood pimp that Jules finally takes notice of his daughter and her impending problems. But, by then, Baby discovers that she is the only one who can change her future.
Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O’Neill’s debut novel, is dark and gritty. Mature young adult readers will find much to relate to in this novel about growing up and not giving up in spite of the odds. The winner of CBC radio’s 2007 Canada Reads program, Lullabies for Little Criminals is highly recommended. JdeG
Before I Wake by Robert J. Wiersema. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2006. Hardback. 384 pages. 978-0-679-31373-1
Wiersema’s novel introduces a multitude of voices to tell this story of loss, redemption and forgiveness. Sherry Barrett is only three years old when she is critically injured by a hit-and-run driver and goes into a coma from which is not expected to wake. Miraculously, she begins breathing on her own and appears to have the power to heal anyone who touches her. The story of what happens to Sherry is told in a fractured, journalistic style by the characters who surround her, including her grieving parents, her nurse, the driver who caused her injuries, and a stranger who is determined to condemn those who have faith in the miracles Sherry performs. The novel is a fast-paced and intriguing read, and Sherry’s story raises many fascinating questions about the nature of faith and forgiveness. IJ
The Edmonton Queen: The Final Voyage by Darrin Hagen. New Expanded
Edition. Edmonton: Brindle & Glass, 2007 (previous version published in 1997 as The Edmonton Queen, Not a Riverboat Story). Paperback. 247 pages. 978-1897142202
Darrin Hagen, also known as drag queen Gloria Hole, was part of a dynamic era in Edmonton's gay/transvestite/transgendered community through the 1980s and 1990s. From the underground world of the private club, Flashback, to the public forum of the Edmonton Fringe Festival, Gloria performed the pleasures and contradictions of her
complicated identity. Hagen wrote a play and then a book, both entitled The Edmonton Queen, in a successful attempt to capture the excitement and the sorrows of a turbulent time.
It's not always easy being a queen, and Hagen's account of the ups and downs of life in the drag community is exceptionally readable. Terms such as HIV positive and AIDS are never mentioned in this book, but the death rate among the cast of characters is notably high and the people in this book face many pressures that simply would not occur in the lives of their straight counterparts. Alberta is not famous for its open-mindedness and tolerance but the queens parlayed their outlandish approach to life into many different forms of public acceptance: a successful nightclub, awards for their Fringe performances, and even a publicity photo of "Guys in Disguise" that hung in the Edmonton International Airport for many years - the first image of Edmonton visitors saw as they emerged from international customs.
In this expanded anniversary edition, published ten years after the first book and illustrated with many photographs from the era, Hagen not only looks back from the vantage point of greater maturity but also opens up his story to responses from some of the other queens who feature so vividly in its pages. As the pronouns slide between "she" and "he", and as the story flickers between Hagen's descriptions and the rebuttals of some of the other queens, the book presents a genuine challenge to conventional notions of gender and identity.
Outrageous, funny, sad, and very thoughtful, this book will change minds, hearts, and possibly even lives. MM
Hand Luggage: A Memoir in Verse by P.K. Page. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2006. Paperback. 93 pages. 978-0889842885
P.K. Page (Patricia Kathleen) has had a long life of success as a Canadian poet. Her memoir in verse is a fascinating journey through her life, reflecting on her experiences in cities across Canada, including Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal and Halifax, and her travels across the world as a diplomat’s wife. Her reminiscences are personal and appealing, delving into the “luggage of experiences” that accompanied her on her life’s travels and revealing her dedication to poetry and art. As a young woman in Western Canada, she fell in love with the “pattern of vowels in a poem, /the clicking of consonants, cadence, and stress” (p. 10). In London England, she adored the writings of Virginia Woolf, explaining, “I was crazed by her rhythms/and dazed by her thought” (p.11). Her poetic reminiscences of her years in Australia and South America reveal all the colours of "Life lived through a topaz" (p. 58). This poetic memoir is evocative and engaging to read and should have a wide appeal to lovers of poetry and to readers interested in the life story of an iconic Canadian poet. IJ
From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People by Lorna Goodison. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007. Hardback. 279 pages. 978-0-7710-3383-4
Poet Lorna Goodison has written an account of her family in Jamaica that will please many readers: those who enjoy family sagas, those who prefer their biographies to increase their understanding of other times and places, those who simply like to read good writing. Goodison's mother, Doris Harvey, was one of the fabulous Harvey girls from Harvey River, which was named after their family. In this always readable book, Goodison brings to life many branches of the family tree, describing elements of Jamaican social history as a bonus. When Doris married Marcus Goodison, they lived a life of luxury until World War II took the bottom out of the economy. With four children, they moved to a slum in Kingston and Doris found ways of coping with poverty rather than wealth. Her daughter's love and admiration for this remarkable woman sing through the pages of this fascinating story. MM
Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam. Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2006. Paperback. 350 pages. 978-0385661447. $17.95.
Toronto emergency physician Vincent Lam brings us a wonderful collection of stories that should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in medicine, but these stories will also appeal to any teens who enjoy TV shows like ER, House and Grey's Anatomy. Lam's medical experience infuses these stories, which follow a group of doctors from medical school through the early years of their careers, with a gritty realism that is utterly compelling.
In two of the early stories, a young love affair between two pre-med students is authentically and sympathetically portrayed. Ethical dilemmas rear their heads in several of the stories. Is it more important to do a proper dissection, or to show respect by keeping a cadaver's tattoo intact? Do you tell a wife that her husband died during a visit to a massage parlour? Do you report an incident where you suspect a patient died because the nurses weren't paying attention to his monitor?
Doctors are also revealed to have some decidedly human flaws. In one story, an emergency doctor drives home exhausted after an all-night shift, despite his previous close calls from dozing off at the wheel. In another, a young doctor is in denial about his worsening drinking problem. Medical ethics get complicated for a well-intentioned emergency doctor who believes a patient's injuries may be due to police brutality. However, his sympathy evaporates when the patient bites him.
Lam's stories are wonderful slices of life. They demystify a profession that society still tends to put on a pedestal. This look at medicine from both the doctor and the patient perspective is unique in Canadian literature. HG
Yesno by Dennis Lee. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007. Paperback. 62 pages. 978-0-88784-758-5
This book is a companion to Un, published in 2003 and reviewed in this column in 2003/4 (?? - I'll check). Like Un, it creates its own language to contemplate the onrushing ruin of the earth. Lee finds points of optimism - in one poem, "noful (10)," he contrasts the "noful" - the extinction of species, the "corporate borgias" - with the "yesward" - the belated recognition that we need to take urgent action. In "asif" (17), he talks about a planet "poised for a last-real comeback." His pessimism is deep, however, and his short, dense poems challenge readers to ponder the implications of his puns ("waste-deep" ) and his made-up words ("kneejerk abracadaver" ) in all the fulness of threat that they imply so intensely. The 62 poems, packed into short lines and verses but charged with compressed energy, speak to the contemporary crisis in vivid ways. MM
Quick by Anne Simpson. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007. Paperback. 107 pages. 978-0-7710-8091-3
The opposite of "quick" is sometimes "slow" but in this book the quick is more directly used in its meaning of "life" and is contrasted with the dead. Simpson is concerned with life in the body, and with the limits of life and the limits of death. The poems draw on animal life, on ancient myths and legends, on the powers of water and the glories of nature, to explore what we understand, intuit and barely grasp about living and dying. Simpson uses the page in a variety of ways to shape the reading of her poems, making use of lines, spaces, fonts, and layout to carve meaning out of ink and paper. She creates a vivid image, wrings meaning from it and lets it go; for example, these lines from “Winter” (49): “Standing, I glance at the shape/I made lying down. Body that is no longer body/ but the skin of a wish. How do we get up/ walk out of ourselves?” It is a rich, thoughtful and engrossing set of poems. MM
Searching for Bobby Orr by Stephen Brunt. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2007 (2006). Paperback. 304 pages. 978-0330447560
Bobby Orr, one of the great hockey players of all time, did not authorize this biography, and the book is probably in many ways better because of that fact. Orr's own life - his short but fabulous career, mostly with the Boston Bruins and his role in the rise and fall of Alan Eagleson, professional hockey's first player agent - is the enigma at the centre of the story. The main plot - Orr learns to play hockey, signs on with Boston and becomes an instant superstar, fights ongoing troubles with his knee and is finally forced to retire young - provides only part of the appeal of this book. Orr's glory years coincided with the expansion of the National Hockey League and Brunt is extremely interesting on how opening up the League affected players, owners and fans.
He is sharp on the betrayal embedded in the Alan Eagleson story as well. Eagleson was the NHL's first player agent. His impact on player salaries is still being felt, but Eagleson's own relationships with players, Orr in particular, ended bitterly in a courtroom.
Brunt's reflections on the role of hockey in Canadian cultural life add nuances to this story which has many of the qualities of an epic. Even an extremely well-informed fan would learn much from this book, but it is not necessary to be a hockey zealot to enjoy it. MM
Dead in the Water: An Anthology of Canadian Mystery Fiction, edited by Violette Malan and Therese Greenwood. Toronto, ON: RendeVous Press, 2006. Paperback. 312 pages 978-1-894917-37-7
Since over 80 percent of Canadians live near a body of water, be it a lake, ocean, or river, water can be a handy device when thinking of murder. The nineteen short stories in this collection, celebrate (if one can use such a word here) both murder and the Canadian connection to water from one coast to the other, with stops along the way. Various genres are included as well as we begin the voyage revisiting the death of Group of Seven artist Tom Thompson, referred to only as “the painter” as well as other historical fiction tales. The vast majority of the stories, however, are realistic fiction, happening to your neighbours just the other day. A crossover tale by Tanya Huff brings in the supernatural as well as a whisper of First Nation beliefs which is almost the only indication that Canada has a multicultural population.
While many of the narrators are middle-aged women, there is enough here to interest the young adult reader interested in both short stories and murder mysteries. From the pain of first love to the lure of lost treasure and other legends and back again to dysfunctional families, this collection is an enjoyable experience – a good place to get your feet wet! GdV
By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt. Toronto: Vintage Canada 2007/2006. Paperback. 308 pages. 978-0-679-31500-1
This book is the fourth in the fine series of detective stories featuring John Cardinal, other titles of which have been reviewed in this column. The title hints at a suicide note, and by the end of the first chapter, Cardinal has been devastated by a suicide very close to home. At the same time, his colleagues are pursuing a predator who abuses children and posts the images online. The two subplots weave occasionally overlapping threads through the novel and by the time their relationship to each other is fully revealed, the book is building to a tense climax. The book is hard to put down and readers may wish to make sure they have reading time available before they begin. Blunt's account of Cardinal's grief is subtle and compelling, and his narrative of the impact of suicide raises this novel above the level of simple crime fiction. MM
A Journeyman to Grief by Maureen Jennings. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2007. Paperback. 352 pages. 978-0771043383
Inspector William Murdoch is back in the seventh of Maureen Jennings' mysteries set in Toronto in the late 1800s. This time out, he's investigating the murder of a livery stable owner who was apparently horsewhipped to death before being strung up in his stable. The man's wife and employees don't seem very heartbroken, and a series of motives emerges. Soon after, a member of Toronto's black community is murdered, and his death is related to the first. Intertwined with Murdoch's case are several chapters about a black woman abducted from Canada decades earlier, and sold into slavery in the U.S. As the novel unfolds, these two disparate stories converge. As always, Jennings' historical research is impeccable, bringing late Victorian Toronto to life in all its splendour and seediness. We also see the beginnings of social changes that herald the end of the Victorian era in the form of Murdoch's romance with Amy Slade, the trouser-wearing "New Woman." HG