Friday, June 28, 2013

Spoon River Revisited

Spoon River Revisited
Daniel J. Benor

In 1916 Edgar Lee Masters published a collection of free-form poems titled Spoon River Anthology. In 2012 psychiatric psychotherapist Dan Benor, a longtime lover of the original, published what he calls a sequel. In accordance with his interests, research, experience, and beliefs, his poems warn of the dangers of wholesale reliance on westernized medicine.

While I disagree with Dr. Benor on a number of issues, on this subject we are solidly on the same side of the fence: namely, that while medicine as we know it has its place (broken bones, emergency trauma, diagnostic technology, and so forth), there should be training and encouragement around exercise, nutrition, and alternative medicine as well. From the introduction: 100,000 people die annually (in the U.S. alone) from medications properly prescribed and properly used, and 180,000 more die from medical errors. This is the equivalent of two fully loaded jumbo jets crashing every day, killing everyone on board. Is the rate in Canada any better? What pressure would Prime Minister Harper be under if a plane went down every week? Surely to God we, with our level of technology and our health care expenditures, can do better.

One can argue his statistics. One can also argue his suggested treatment methods. There is, however, no arguing my favourite line from the book: “I leave you with an important observation: Illness is not caused by drug deficiency.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone, especially those who may be suffering from a malady that is defying diagnosis or not responding to treatment.

- Steve Lidkea

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Far Far Away

Far Far Away
Tom McNeal 

Those who expect a adventurous romp through the supernatural when reading Tom McNeal's newest novel may find themselves disappointed, but if you're looking for a touching coming-of-age story about friendship, young romance, and the twisted world that both the wondrous and sinister inhabit, you will find a worthwhile gem in Far Far Away. Set in the quaint town of Never Better, the story follows the tale of the quizzically named Jeremy Johnson Johnson and his unusual yet endearing friendship with the ghost of Jacob Grimm (of Grimm brothers' fame), a friendship that is often the source of hardship for Jeremy, as young boys who talk to unseen spirits tend to not be the most popular among their peers. Between a nigh-catatonic father, absent mother, and the looming foreclosure of their family-bookstore-cum-home, things are far from easy. But with the friendship of the adventurous Ginger Boultinghouse and the foreboding warnings from Jacob of an unknown entity who seeks to harm Jeremy, things immediately take a turn for the interesting.

I must admit that I was initially one of the disappointed when Far Far Away revealed itself to be more grounded in reality than perhaps originally advertised, with the exception of Jacob's ghost, of course. The titular Grimm brother constitutes one of the more creative choices in the book, equal parts character and omniscient narrator. It is fitting that he is our storyteller (being one of the two who crafted so many childhood classics), but it is the evolution of his character through his own reflection and his friendship with Jeremy, and his subsequent transformation from removed observer to active participant in the book's plot that, to me, was one of its strongest points.


McNeal seems to have a major strength when writing relationships; the friendship (and blooming romance) between Jeremy and Ginger is endearing and easily relatable, as the rambunctious Ginger bit-by-bit manages to drag Jeremy out of his shell. His character arc mirrors Jacob's, though through a different mechanism, and his growth into who he is by the book's conclusion is believable and affecting. You care about him, and through the ups and downs of the story, wish for him to come back from adversity to succeed. With regard to his characters, the only weakness NcNeal seems to have is a tendency to introduce peripheral plot threads and character arcs. Though they eventually feed back into the mystery which pervades the central plot, McNeal introduces several characters who turn out only to exist for the sake of events related to them moving the plot along. Given how strong his central cast was, this was a bit of a letdown.

Between the strengths of his characters, the well-crafted nature of their personal journeys, and the fine balancing act McNeal plays between the whimsical and the lurking darkness of the book's third act, it is clear that he is crafting a modern tale much in the same tradition as the original Grimm brothers' stories. The result is a journey that is touching and poignant  both in its life lessons, and in its ability to convey the roller coaster that is growing up.

- Vincent Smith

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery.     

It Chooses You

It Chooses You
Miranda July

Over the Christmas holidays I went to The Bookshelf on a mission. I felt I was in a reading rut and wanted something to shake me out of it. I wandered around and around and ended up in the art section when I saw it: Miranda July’s It Chooses You. July is an artist whose whole life seems to be one giant, wonderful work in progress: she performs, acts, curates, writes short stories, makes CDs, directs films…. In her all of her work she combines child-like wonderment with the shocking world of adults. Her art both comforts and jars.

In this book July finds herself in-between her first, acclaimed feature film (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and scripting her second one. She is lost and procrastinating, so she decides to start a new project: to look through the L.A. PennySaver, pick out some ads, and visit and interview the people who placed them. She takes a photographer along with her, so the book is filled with the artifacts of these visits.

It is a strange and beautiful book. The people July visits are fascinating, but often seem caught in amber (most belong to a different, almost unimaginable, pre-computer time). The book is an account of her working through her fears and writer’s block as she visits each home. She is an unflinching writer, mostly about her own art and self:

In my paranoid world every storekeeper thinks I’m stealing, every man thinks I’m a prostitute or a lesbian, every woman thinks I’m a lesbian or arrogant, and every child and animal sees the real me and it is evil. And they are not wrong; I have been all these things at one time or another.
But she is equally frank in her impressions of her interviewees: “Ron was exactly the kind of man you spend your whole life being careful not to end up in the apartment of.” She finds beauty in the awkward and around the edges, and she finds odd and lovely new ways to describe the familiar. The book sneaks up on you. What starts as a seemingly random series of events ends up with a narrative arc that pulls you along. 

I was moved much more than I expected reading this book. It put the world on a slightly different tilt and has lingered in my mind ever since I put it down. If you have never heard of Miranda July, this would be a great book to get you started.

- Brendan Johnson

Signs and Wonders

Signs and Wonders
Alix Ohlin

“A fleeting but immeasurable sense of rightness of the world.”

Signs and Wonders
is a collection of love stories: love that is so hidden by daily vexations that we don’t notice it; love that comes back unexpectedly when we think it’s gone; love for people we thought we didn’t like; desperate love that makes us do crazy things. Sometimes love comes without our awareness—we don’t always choose the people we love.

In the title story, a woman’s best friend is someone she thought she hated; in “Stepmother’s Story,” a woman realizes how much she can sacrifice for her stepson. A man grieving his wife’s death finds love with someone he didn’t expect in “The Teacher.” A divorced woman surprises herself with her reaction to her ex-husband’s accident in “Three Little Maids.” In “The Assistants,” a woman realizes the significance of her feelings for a co-worker years after they have separated.

Often the stories are about mundane lives of ordinary people when revelations come in a crisis—when someone dies, gets sick, disappears, or has an accident. However, the stories are never predictable. There are a few stories that are less credible, such as when a wife jeopardizes her marriage to have a baby in “Robbing the Cradle,” or when a woman gets dangerously close to adultery to better understand her husband’s love for his best friend in “You Are What You Like.” 

Alix Ohlin believes in the inherent goodness of people, and the stories, even if they end with death, are uplifting. This philosophy and similar themes can be found in her Giller-nominated novel Inside.

Most of the stories are written in a traditional form, using a precise, almost minimalistic prose. “Vigo Park,” however, is an experimental story in which the author’s voice comments on the events and plays with the idea of Chekhov’s gun ("One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”) in a literal as well as a literary sense. The postmodern writing style prefigures that of Inside, where seemingly separate narratives, recorded achronologically, connect together in the readers’ minds as they read the novel.

- Kasia Jaronczyk

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Oathbreaker's Shadow

The Oathbreaker's Shadow 
Amy McCulloch

The most intriguing selling point of The Oathbreaker's Shadow, the debut fantasy novel from UK/Canadian author Amy McCulloch, is that for all its other-worldly action, the story is primarily about relationships. Its central character is the gifted young warrior Raim, who dreams of standing guard for his best friend Khareh, the future leader of their people. But Raim unwittingly breaks a promise, one he can’t remember making, which forces him into exile in an unforgiving desert.

In Raim's world, promises are sacred vows, represented by tangible knots tied and worn for life. Characters are bound by their oaths, forcing them to live as much for others as for themselves. The winding plot pulls our hero out of his physical element and sets up the action, but his inner struggle to understand the perils of blind duty and the limits of friendship makes Raim's adventure that much more recognizable.

Content-wise, Oathbreaker is safely geared toward young adult readers, but the writing is more than mature enough for a broader audience. This tale begs for a sequel. It's suspenseful and fun, with lots to keep the pages turning long after bed-time.

- Chris Miller 

Amy McCulloch will be reading at The Bookshelf on Friday, June 28 at 6:00 p.m.

We Learn Nothing

We Learn Nothing
Tim Kreider

We Learn Nothing reads like the internal dialogue we all have with ourselves at some point, usually during moments we feel will define not only our lives, but who we are. Kreider finds inspiration in life’s toughest stuff—finding your birth family in midlife, grappling with changing conceptions of our closest friends, feeling helpless as our parents age, and facing our own flaws and self-deceptions—appealing to himself and his readers through humour, candour, and an offbeat, self-effacing assuredness that everything will work itself out in the end.

Like the front cover depicting Kreider jumping off the edge of a cliff, relying only on a pair of makeshift wings, terra firma nowhere in sight, much of Kreider’s charm lies not in his ability as a fellow human to provide us with answers to life’s most persistent dilemmas, but in his comforting us with the knowledge that we are not alone with our fears of life’s many unknowns. Like his title, which dispels the myth that knowledge and certainty accumulate with age, Kreider seems to suggest that it is, in fact, this uncertainty that characterizes much of the human experience. Kreider’s writings provide a remedy not for this uncertainty, but for the discomfort that accompanies it, suggesting that sometimes the very best we can do in our very limited positions as human beings is to close our eyes, take a deep breath, and jump.

- Sarah Walker

The Paris Architect

The Paris Architect
Charles Belfoure

The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure takes a new path over well-trodden ground. Set in Paris during the German occupation in World War II, the novel revolves around a young architect, Lucien Bernard, the choices he makes under pressure, and the changes he undergoes as a result.

Arrogant, selfish, and hedonistic, Lucien is recommended as architect to a wealthy industrialist, Manet. In need of work and spurred on by greed and pride, Lucien soon realises that Manet's commission has strings attached: the design of a factory for the German oppressors is tied to the creation of an ingenious hiding place for a Jewish refugee in transit.  

Justifying his actions to himself and others, Lucien quickly finds the situation spiraling out of his control. Manet cajoles him into the creation of more hiding places by tempting him with expensive gifts, holding out the promise of designing a series of armament factories for the Germans, and pandering to his ego. The money and perks are enough to keep Lucien from thinking too deeply about the consequences of his actions until the night he accidentally meets the intended occupant of one of his hiding spaces. The meeting has a profound effect on Lucien and is the pivotal moment in his character's development.

Given the harsh topic of the novel, it is a relief that Balfoure  does not dwell unnecessarily upon grisly details. However, using his sparse prose to full effect, the reader is given a reel of razor-sharp images which strike home quickly.   

The atrocities committed by the Hitler regime and the way that many stood by and watched or collaborated with them have an undying ability to shock and revolt those who are blessed to live in peacetime. The power of this book lies in its spotlight upon the differing responses when people are faced with ethical choices, the consequence of which may be death. The question that lingers at the end of the book is, "What kind of person would you turn out to be in similar circumstances?"

- Sue Warren

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A Field Guide to Getting Lost

A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Rebecca Solnit

Approach Rebecca Solnit's essay collection A Field Guide To Getting Lost with an open mind and an inquisitive eye. Solnit holds up a single word, “lost,” and then twists it, pulls it apart, reconstructs it, melts it down, and examines what is left. As you make your way through the passages of the collection, you may ask yourself why you're reading about the interaction between Spanish explorers and the tribes they discovered upon reaching the new world, or what punk culture has to do with anything, or what is so important about the habits of tortoises. Don't worry, you are in good hands. Solnit takes what seems to be a mass of disparate elements and then ties them all together, with loss as the common thread between them. She masterfully blends “personal memoir, philosophical speculation, natural lore, cultural history, and art criticism” (LA Times). Take her advice and feel free to wander, mentally or geographically, as you read. It's okay if you get lost.

- Julian Del Bel Belluz

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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Other Typist

The Other Typist
Suzanne Rindell

Amid the hype around Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant cinematic interpretation of the classic novel The Great Gatsby comes Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel, The Other Typist. In contrast to the exaggerated indulgences of Fitzgerald’s glamorous representations of 1920s America, Rindell focuses instead on the darker elements of life during the Prohibition era.

Her protagonist, Rose, is an uptight, morally austere woman working as a stenographer in a seedy New York City police department precinct. When Odalie, a seductive and alluring young beauty with bobbed hair and an illicit lifestyle, joins the typing pool, she throws Rose into a dizzying maelstrom of speakeasies and underground culture. Told through Rose’s fluid yet unreliable narrative perspective, The Other Typist contrasts the vastly different yet remarkably linked worlds of 1920s crime and punishment.

Rindell creates a world in which the reader recognizes the underlying sexism within the police department as a comment on gender inequality in the early twentieth century and sees the burgeoning feminism bubbling up in the speakeasies like bathtub gin as an indication of impending cultural revolution. However, the detailed depiction of one of America’s most interesting and controversial periods pales in comparison to a plot that moves the reader through a labyrinth of possibilities as Rose careens out of control toward a thrilling and unexpected conclusion.

This book’s got it all, folks: controversy and corruption, intrigue and mystery, sensuality and obsession, cunningly conveyed in lyrical prose.

- Lee Puddephatt

Unaccustomed Earth

Unaccustomed Earth: Stories
Jhumpa Lahiri

A daughter’s rebellion, a son’s downward spiral into self-destruction, and a mother's grief: these are just some of the carefully concocted stories that find their way seamlessly into the pages of Jhumpa Lahiri’s third book, Unaccustomed Earth. The Pulitzer prize-winning author, known for her previous works Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, which was made into a film and screened right here at the Bookshelf Cinema, returns with another collection of short stories, once again dealing with stories of human experiences, identity crisis, and hardships of Indian immigration.

Written in the delicate, fragile manner that Lahiri has become best known for, the stories center around the lives of Bengali immigrants and their children. Part one returns to the format of Lahiri’s first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, while part two is split into three stories describing the tale of two families over a period of thirty years. The stories showcased in this third book once again show Lahiri at her absolute best, leaving the reader with a deep attachment to all of the characters, desperately wanting more. Highly recommended.

- Jag Raina

Barack Obama

Barack Obama
by David Maraniss

If you meet any of the following criteria, you should read this book:

  1. You love biographies. For me, the best biographies go beyond a simple exploration of the events in one person's life. They pick you up in the sweep of historical events and take you for a ride. This book makes that grade. On your ride you'll learn about rural America during World War II, tribal politics at the time of Kenya's independence, the political pressures faced by Indonesians in the 1960s, and much more. The common thread is how each of these factors impacted the trajectory of Barack Obama's life. It's a good ride.
  2. You can look past politics. This book does not judge Obama's performance as president. Rather, it unravels the series of events over the last century, from the ones with global significance to small, chance human encounters, that brought Obama to the Presidency. I believe that even if you are not an Obama fan, or are disillusioned with his performance in office, you will enjoy this book if you can put aside what you think about Obama politically.
  3. You love a good yarn. Maraniss takes real-life events and gives them a great narrative arc. He constructs his stories in a way that puts you right there alongside the characters.
  4. You want the cold, hard facts. This book is exhaustively researched. I was amused the first time in the book that Maraniss corrected Barack Obama's own facts about his family history as presented in his memoir, Dreams from my Father. Then it happened a number of other times. Even where Maraniss could have gotten away with cheating a little on his homework, he goes the extra mile to present the truth.
  5. You don't mind a big book. Barack Obama is big, and the level of detail can at times detract from the quality of the narrative. Clocking in at 571 pages, this book could easily have been slimmed down to a lean, mean 400 and still left the reader satisfied.
All that said, I loved it. Count your check marks for items one to five to see if maybe you will too.

- Andy Best

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project
Graeme Simsion

Every once in a while, an author creates a character so genuinely and lovably eccentric that readers can’t help wanting to know more about his or her fictional life. One of those characters is Don Tillman, professor of genetics and unlikely husband in Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project.

The Rosie Project outlines Don’s commendable efforts at finding a compatible life partner—a task challenging for the most “normal” of people, let alone someone isolated by his vast intellect and deficient social skills. A master of efficiency, Don rejects the scornful ineptitude of the “traditional dating paradigm.” Turning to the scientific method, Don formulates a plan to maximize his probability of finding a well-matched life mate: a comprehensive survey entitled “The Wife Project.” Naturally, the course of love does not run smooth: Don realizes that despite sound planning and strong logic, things turn out for the best when they run a more whimsical path.

Overall, Don is a character who captured me with his humility and vulnerability. He approaches new social trials as learning opportunities, studying “protocols” of human behavior and complex emotional dynamics. His delight in new discovery and simple pleasures like having dinner on a balcony during a rain reminds one to be mindful of those fleeting moments of true human connection and gladness. Readers have something to learn from Don Tillman: even in the face of almost-certain failure, a sincere desire to learn and grow can bring about the most heart-warming and comical of storylines.

- Amie Willoughby

Red Joan

Red Joan
Jennie Rooney

Red Joan is a novel set in the present, but it is mainly about life in pre-World War II Cambridge, a university town full of wide-eyed, idealistic students who provided a prime hunting ground for people recruiting future Soviet spies. Joan is a young woman who comes to Cambridge University in 1937 to read for a certificate and is drawn by love and circumstances into a communist group. We first meet Joan when she is an eighty-five-year-old widow, mother, and grandmother in the present day. She has the same activities as other people; she ballroom dances and paints once per week in local clubs, and she shops and visits her only son and his family. So we (and she) are surprised when MI5 agents knock on her door and begin to question her about her activities and friends during and after the war.

The narrative skips from present to past with an easy flow as the reader discovers the reasons behind Joan’s decisions, and we may wonder if we would have made the same decisions as Joan. Certainly, the world was a different place in the years of the Cold War, and this book takes us back to that time with wonderful writing and very descriptive passages. I found Red Joan unputdownable as the many twists and turns were revealed. Joan clings loyally to friends, and Joan’s son, a leading QC, finds out that his mum is not a one-dimensional person, but is more complex, with numerous secrets in her life. I loved the book, and found it to be a brilliant spy novel with a difference. I defy anyone who reads the book not to end up rooting for Joan.

- Catherine McGratton


Colum McCann

Few people can tell of rising from the depths of Death’s murky embrace. In Colum McCann’s most recent novel he endeavours to bring those to life who can.

TransAtlantic spans the course of three centuries, interweaving the stories of liberated slave Frederick Douglass, transatlantic pilots John Alcock and “Teddy” Brown, and American senator George Mitchell with a modest ease that will surprise any who know of the trio’s respective pasts. In McCann’s book, these men inspire and thrill their audiences, creating everlasting impressions on all who meet them. More important in the novel, though, is the role of matriarchal Ireland and her succession of women—both fictional and not—who bear the brunt of their nation’s troubles and ultimately drive the book’s plot line.

While not a large book, TransAtlantic has been split into three smaller sections, the last two-thirds of which are dedicated wholly to the descendants of Lily Duggan, an Irish housemaid who first met Frederick Douglass during his stay in Dublin. While the maternal genesis is initially unclear, the reader eventually realizes that from 1845 to 2012 the women we are following are of Duggan lineage. Time and time again these women experience hardship and grief, strife not only from personal loss, but also from Ireland’s bitter religious battles and the relentless cruelty of the country’s unforgiving landscape.

I can’t say I particularly empathized with any of the book’s characters, and I strongly question the believability of the thoughts and actions of the novel’s protagonist in the present, Hannah. That being said, TransAtlantic is a book I would recommend bringing along for a plane ride or a visit to the beach; it does for Ireland what Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief did for Cape Breton. Recommended for those interested in history, ancestry, and all things Irish.

- Gabriele Simmons