Monday, December 29, 2014


The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favourite things: a true fairy tale. Neither a too-precious tale for children nor a too-heroic piece of genre fantasy, but a story of the kind that J.R.R. Tolkien describes as being characterized by “a quality of strangeness and wonder,” a story of the kind that Tolkien himself accomplished only rarely, in “Leaf by Niggle” or “Smith of Wooten Major”, a story in the tradition of George MacDonald's Lilith or Howard Pyle's The Garden Behind the Moon or C.S. Lewis' Til We Have Faces.

Like these others, Ishiguro's novel operates on a symbolic level that should be described as mythical or mythopoetic rather than simply metaphorical or allegorical. It follows a small group of characters -- an old couple who cannot quite recall their past, a young boy bitten by a strange beast, a warrior with a hidden purpose, an old knight who is the last of Arthur's roundtable -- as they seek the source of a strange forgetfulness that has fallen over the land. Their story explores questions of memory and forgetfulness, especially as they relate to love and death, war and justice, presenting these familiar human questions in a way made new and strange and thereby compelling.

Though the earlier chapters contain some elements that feel out of place, the novel as a whole is also strong stylistically, as Ishiguro's books generally are. A sense of dreaminess, of forgetfulness, seems almost palpably to hang over the prose at times, immersing the reader in the very questions of memory that lie at the heart of the novel but making these questions strange enough that we must reconsider them, must search them out again, as if we are only catching glimpses of them beyond the horizon or seeing them in a dream from which we have just awakened.

I often feel with G. K. Chesterton that “the things I believe most now are the things called fairy tales,” and in this sense Ishiguro's The Buried Giant is a story that can be believed, a story that speaks profoundly to our human experience by returning to us its essential strangeness and wonder.

Jeremy Luke Hill teaches literature, makes jams and preserves, reads continental philosophy, uses open source software, bakes bread, watches documentary film, plays old-man basketball, and writes poetry, among other things. He is the founder of Vocamus Press, an organization that supports reading, writing, and publishing in Guelph. He has a book of poetry, short prose, and photography called Island Pieces. You can read his blog at at, and you can reach him at

Monday, December 15, 2014


Eric McCormack is a writer of exceptional range and talent. You approach his writing innocently enough, getting absorbed in an intriguing story, until you come to an edge in the story. Peel back the edge to reveal another layer, and another, until you finally come to realize that it's layers all the way down.

Cloud is Eric McCormack's most recent novel, and his first book in a decade. Despite the gap, it has been well worth the wait. The book begins with its protagonist, Harry Steene, finding an improbable book about an improbable event in an improbably named bookstore, while attending an unmemorable conference in Mexico. The discovery of the book, and its link to a remote town in Scotland in which Steene lived briefly but loved memorably, is the impetus for a much broader search for understanding and quest for meaning.

What follows is a book that is as broadly sweeping as it is acutely personal. The story roams around the globe, from the slums of Glasgow to the mines of South America to the remote islands of the Pacific, with frequent stops in McCormack's beloved and only vaguely fictional Camberloo. While the book covers a vast geography, though, it rarely strays from the essential questions of purpose, identity, love and relationships.

McCormack's protagonist is intriguing, in that we come to know him more through how he is seen and reacted to by others. His identity is defined—and shaped—by those he meets and their view of his talents, abilities, loyalties, ethics and romantic potential. He is less an actor than he is acted upon, although this makes him no less intriguing as we witness the opportunities that are presented and the choices that are thrust upon him by others. Every situation that we see him in, every person he meets and every interaction he has provides a little reflection of the man we are following. Bit by bit we piece the fragments together until larger features emerge, even while the whole picture remains maddeningly elusive.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cloud from the outset. It is first and foremost a well-crafted story, one that weaves multiple threads of plot and character development into a rich tapestry. McCormack's characters are well developed, intriguing and wonderfully nuanced. If that were all, it would be a good book, and still well worth reading. What I delighted in, however, was the shear complexity, intricacy and texture with which McCormack has sculpted his book. Recurring concepts, motifs and images intertwine in a tale of stunning complexity. As the book unfolds, events, characters, ideas and concepts both build on and reinforce what has come previously.

I found Cloud to be a delight from the outset, and was altogether saddened when it ended. McCormack is a delightful author. His attention to plot, gift for the absurd and delight in the macabre remind me of Neil Gaiman. The depth and complexity of his characters and exploration of the depths of human nature recalls the delightful storytelling of Gabriel García Márquez. And his ability to challenge convention, contemplate the fantastical and question meaning bring to mind the works of José Saramago. Of course, you could also just really enjoy the book as the work of Eric McCormack. And hope we don't have to wait ten years for the next one.

Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).

Monday, December 8, 2014


Growing up in post-war Britain near a city where smoke still hung in the air from industrial waste still smouldering from war-time bombing, I had a deep, personal and abiding interest in the Second World War. As I grew old enough to view the terrible news footage of liberating Nazi camps and able to read Primo Levi, Anne Frank and other astounding authors about the holocaust, I became fascinated at the motivations of the oppressors and petrified at the magnitude of their terrible deeds. As a teen I was fortunate to see Edgar Reitz’s 32 episode series Heimat and I began to glimpse some of the nuances that might illuminate how a community might be more than merely monsters.

Caroline Moorehead’s finely drawn book Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazi’s in Vichy France is a portrait of a community that opened its doors, both institutional and private, to harbour thousands of Jews and other persecuted people during the war. This noble history has become mired in controversy and hagiography since and Moorehead is painstaking in her research to avoid over-blowing the extraordinary story.

Le Chambon-sur-Lievre emerged from its existence as a pre-war holiday resort, remote and lacking in transport, where city folks and orphans could visit for the healthy air and peaceful countryside. What made the community doubly unique was its concentration of devout Christians, many of whom held to archaic non conformist traditions. Hugenots and Darbyists stayed close to home and had strong traditions of not talking, or gossiping. They also demonstrated a commitment to non-violence and protection of the innocent and with the urging of several charismatic and practical leaders they took in increasing streams of displaced people, as well as guiding some to Switzerland and freedom.

Descriptions of the appalling conditions in French holding camps, the arbitrariness of who was shipped off to the camps or who was interrogated and returned to the community, defy logic. Of course there is no logic, only disbelief and admiration for a community that did not lapse into apathy or denial so common elsewhere. The many photographs in the text help to demonstrate how, despite privations, some did enjoy some insulation from the atrocities. What is also clear however is the impossibility of undoing what had been experienced and the distrust deeply sown into the collective psyche. Moorehead does not pretend the miracle is anything more than a gift of chance, she does acknowledge even in paradise betrayals and sacrifices were experienced.

Moorehead’s extensive research painstakingly peels back the layers of memory to reveal the unique alignments that created this chance haven. Le Chambon stands as a proof that monster regimes can be defied and that it takes a village to counter an unthinkable threat. As a book that illuminates a little explored element of the war, this is a highly recommended read. It will certainly convince you that even miracles are underscored by ambiguous fact but that heroic achievements deserve to have a light shone upon them - all the more when a whole community is characterized by the response. 

- Rosslyn Bentley 


Every city has a story, but what does Guelph have tucked away in its unassuming corners? David J. Knight's fascinating anthology Guelph Versifiers of the 19th Century scratches the surface of the delicious secrets of our city. How better to learn about the origins of our city than from some of the first people who lived and breathed in Guelph?

The anthology examines poets from all walks of life spanning the change-filled 19th century. The variety is amusing and astounding. The collection spans poetry from Guelph founder John Galt to anonymous amateur poets to neglected gems of the ever-popular John McCrae. All of the poetry is rare and has perhaps not been read since they were first published in early Guelph newspapers and journals. Odes to sewing machines, bitter tirades lamenting the politics of early Guelph, and emotive monologues demonstrate that there is certainly more to Guelph than meets the eye. It is a surreal and eye-opening experience to read charmingly archaic poetry by long-forgotten Guelphites who once walked the same steps as we do every day. It’s a strange and pleasant surprise to see the Speed River and Wyndham Street in the eyes of a different century and mindset!

There are poems for every taste and each reader will find their own pearls in the mix. Some of my personal favourites include Henrietta "Hetty" Hazelwood and her vivid and emotionally charged imagery, Charles C. Foster's nostalgic "The City of Guelph", and Thomas Laidlaw's succinct Dickinsonian tidbits. Of special note is the delusional yet amusing James Gay, Canada's self-titled Poet Laureate, whose poetry is definitely worth reading for its "quality". David J. Knight’s charming introductions to each poet and succinct footnotes shed tasteful led on the fascinating lives of these Guelph poets. It truly makes me wonder why more city histories are not explored through anthologies of their poetry. A sequel to Guelph Versifiers is certainly in order!

Mike Fan is a Chinese-Canadian classical baritone. Mike plays five instruments and speaks three languages (with a few in progress). He holds degrees in piano performance and biomedical science, but it was obvious from an early age that music would win out. On the literary side, Mike wrote 365 sonnets in his teens and writes for his poetry blog Follow @MikeZFan for Mike's adventures, musical and otherwise.