Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Sun Also Rises

        Having not read a classic novel in a while, I decided to seek one out, and as always, my favourite Chapters store pulled through. Directly after walking through the revolving door I came to a table of "Must Read" books. After a quick glance I found this weeks book, The Sun Also Rises, written by Ernest Hemingway.

        The Sun Also Rises was Hemingway's first big novel, and immediately established Hemingway as one of the great prose stylists, and one of the preeminent writers of his time. It is also the book that encapsulates the angst of the post-World War I generation, known as the Lost Generation. This poignantly beautiful story of a group of American and English expatriates in Paris on an excursion to Pamplona represents a dramatic step forward for Hemingway's evolving style. Featuring Left Bank Paris in the 1920s and brutally realistic descriptions of bullfighting in Spain, the story is about the flamboyant Lady Brett Ashley and the hapless Jake Barnes. In an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions, this is the Lost Generation.

        Jake Barnes, Hemingway's narrator with a mysterious war wound that has left him sexually incapable, is the heart and soul of the book. Brett, the beautiful, doomed English woman he adores, provides the glamour of natural chic and sexual unattainability. Alcohol and post-World War I anomie fuel the plot: weary of drinking and dancing in Paris cafés, the expatriate gang decamps for the Spanish town of Pamplona for the "wonderful nightmare" of a week-long fiesta. Brett, with fiancé and ex-lover Cohn in tow, breaks hearts all around until she falls, briefly, for the handsome teenage bullfighter Pedro Romero. "My God! he's a lovely boy," she tells Jake. "And how I would love to see him get into those clothes. He must use a shoe-horn." Whereupon the party disbands.

        But what's most shocking about the book is its lean, adjective-free style. The Sun Also Rises is Hemingway's masterpiece--one of them, anyway--and no matter how many times you've read it or how you feel about the manners and morals of the characters, you won't be able to resist its spell. This is a classic that really does live up to its reputation.

        Ernest Hemingway ranks as the most famous of twentieth-century American writers; like Mark Twain, Hemingway is one of those rare authors most people know about, whether they have read him or not. The difference is that Twain, with his white suit, ubiquitous cigar, and easy wit, survives in the public imagination as a basically, lovable figure, while the deeply imprinted image of Hemingway as rugged and macho has been much less universally admired, for all his fame. Hemingway has been regarded less as a writer dedicated to his craft than as a man of action who happened to be afflicted with genius. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Time magazine reported the news under Heroes rather than Books and went on to describe the author as "a globe-trotting expert on bullfights, booze, women, wars, big game hunting, deep sea fishing, and courage." Hemingway did in fact address all those subjects in his books, and he acquired his expertise through well-reported acts of participation as well as of observation; by going to all the wars of his time, hunting and fishing for great beasts, marrying four times, occasionally getting into fistfights, drinking too much, and becoming, in the end, a worldwide celebrity recognizable for his signature beard and challenging physical pursuits.

The Flying Troutmans

        A few weeks ago I read Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness, and fell in love with the book. Toews just has a knack for writing kid characters that are hard to not relate to. She has them down to the melodramatic poetry they scribble into notebooks and it's simply incredible just how much growing up she can stuff into them without losing that sense of childhood. This week I decided I wanted to read another one of her books. I chose The Flying Troutmans, and once again was held captive by the story, and the characters that filled it. Toews’s writing is a unique collision of sadness and humour, and The Flying Troutmans is a dark story, but it's also a never-ending series of hilarious adventures.

        We are first introduced to Hattie Troutman. She finds herself returning to Winnipeg from Paris to assume guardianship of her niece and nephew, Thebes and Logan, following the mental collapse of her sister, Min. Having been freshly jilted by her French, adjective hating lover, Hattie is in a tenuous emotional state herself, but ripe for change and used to picking up the pieces when Min falls off the rails.

        Shortly after Hattie’s arrival, a suicidal Min is hospitalized. Desperately in need of a game plan, Hattie impulsively takes the kids on the road to find their father, Cherkis, who was banished from his home years ago by a raving Min and who now lives somewhere in the western U.S. Thus the quirky trio—purple-haired, wise-beyond-her-years Thebes, recently expelled brother Logan, and overwhelmed Hattie-embark on their journey.What follows is a Little Miss Sunshine–like quest in which the characters learn about themselves and each other as they weather car repairs, sleazy motel rooms and encounters with bizarre people. Toews's gift for writing precocious children and the story's antic momentum redeem the familiar set-up, and if the ending feels a bit rushed, it's largely because it's tough to let Toews's characters go.

        Travel is a natural portal to memory, and here it is used effectively as a segue into Min and Hattie’s complex past. What emerges is a portrait of a sibling relationship dictated by equal parts love, dependency, and disease. In other words, it’s a deeply problematic relationship, but one not easily dismissed.

        Familiar elements from Toews’ previous novels – the road trip, missing parents, a story told in hindsight, teenagers suddenly thrust to the helm – recombine effortlessly here. The journey at the novel’s centre gives the narrative a momentum wholly absent in A Complicated Kindness, which dealt with the suffocating, static atmosphere of a Mennonite community. The considerable charm of Miriam Toews’ fiction comes, in part, from her ability to create characters in situations of long-term duress with a brilliantly emulsified mix of repression and humour, punctuated by bursts of real emotion. In The Flying Troutmans, Toews’ unsunny topic is mental illness – something on the periphery of, but never so solidly confronted in, her previous work. And Toews is now an old hand at writing the kind of precocious teenage dialogue, with its flatly ironic tone, that made the movie Juno seem like a revelation to so many last year.

        This is a book that builds its complexity so subtly and imperceptibly that the inevitable sense of deep engagement feels almost like sleight of hand. Toews writes in a high-energy, original voice filled with love, fear, humour and originality. Miriam Toews is an extraordinarily gifted writer, one who writes with unsentimental compassion for her people and an honest understanding of their past, the tectonic shifts of their present and variables of their future. I would definitely recommend this book, and look forward to reading more of Toews work. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011


I had my eye on Freedom by Jonathan Franzen for quite some time, but I didn't know if I would be able to finish it in seven days so I kept putting it off. Then at work we had our annual Secret Santa, and after a week of chocolates and cards, I received this hefty book on the final day. Without the pressure of reading beginning to end in one week, I had no excuse not to dive right in. Franzen has artfully fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.

Freedom is a wrenching, funny, and forgiving portrait of a Midwestern family. Patty and Walter Berglund find each other early: a pretty jock, focused on the court and a little lost off it, and a stolid budding lawyer, besotted with her and almost burdened by his integrity. They make a family and a life together, and, over time, slowly lose track of each other.

The Berglund's were the new pioneers of old St. Paul, the gentrifiers, the hands-on parents, the avant-garde of the Whole Foods generation. Patty was the ideal sort of neighbor, who could tell you where to recycle your batteries and how to get the local cops to actually do their job. She was an enviably perfect mother and the wife of Walter's dreams. Together with Walter, environmental lawyer, commuter cyclist, total family man, she was doing her small part to build a better world.

But now, in the new millennium, the Berglunds have become a mystery. Why has their teenage son moved in with the aggressively Republican family next door? Why has Walter taken a job working with Big Coal? What exactly is Richard Katz, out rocker and Walter's college best friend and rival, still doing in the picture? Most of all, what has happened to Patty? Why has the bright star of Barrier Street become "a very different kind of neighbor," an implacable fury coming unhinged before the street's attentive eyes?

Jonathan Franzen has given us an epic story of contemporary love and marriage. Freedom comically and tragically captures the temptations and burdens of liberty: the thrills of teenage lust, the shaken compromises of middle age, the wages of suburban sprawl, the heavy weight of empire. In charting the mistakes and joys of Freedom's characters as they struggle to learn how to live in an ever more confusing world, Franzen has produced an indelible and deeply moving portrait of our time

"The awful thing about life is this:" says Octave to the Marquis in Renoir's Rules of the Game. "Everyone has his reasons." That could be a motto for novelists as well, few more so than Jonathan Franzen, who seems less concerned with creating merely likeable characters than ones who are fully alive, in all their self-justifying complexity. Their stories align at times with Big Issues--among them mountaintop removal, war profiteering, and rock'n'roll--and in some ways can't be separated from them, but what you remember most are the characters, whom you grow to love the way families often love each other: not for their charm or goodness, but because they have their reasons, and you know them.

A Red Herring Without Mustard

After reading the first two Flavia de Luce adventures in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and The Weed that Strings the Hangman's bag, I was thrilled when I noticed the third instalment, A Red Herring Without Mustard on the new releases shelf. This book is a splendid romp through 1950s England led by the world’s smartest and most incorrigible preteen. Flavia de Luce remains irresistibly appealing and continues to charm us.

In the third installment of this bestselling, award-winning, sister-poisoning, bicycle-riding, murder-investigating, and utterly captivating series, Flavia de Luce must draw upon Gypsy lore and her encyclopaedic knowledge of poisons to prevent a grave miscarriage of justice.

“You frighten me,” the old Gypsy woman says. “Never have I seen my crystal ball so filled with darkness.” So begins eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce’s third adventure through the charming but deceptively dark byways of the village of Bishop’s Lacey. The fortune teller also claims to see a woman who is lost and needs help to get home—and Flavia knows it must be her mother Harriet, who died when Flavia was less than a year old. The Gypsy’s vision opens up old wounds for our precocious yet haunted heroine, and sets her mind racing in search of what it could mean.

When Flavia later goes to visit the Gypsy at her encampment, she certainly doesn’t expect to find the poor old woman lying near death in her caravan, bludgeoned in the wee hours. Was it an act of retribution by those who thought that the woman had abducted a local child years before? Certainly Flavia understands the bliss of settling scores; revenge is a delightful pastime when one has two odious older sisters. But how can she prove this crime is connected to the missing baby? Did it have something to do with the weird sect who met at the river to practice their secret rites?

While still pondering the possibilities, Flavia stumbles upon a corpse—that of a notorious layabout and bully she had only recently caught prowling about Buckshaw. The body hangs from a statue of Poseidon in Flavia’s very own backyard, and our unflappable sleuth knows it’s up to her to figure out the significance. Pedalling her faithful bicycle, Gladys, across the countryside in search of clues to both crimes, Flavia uncovers secrets both long-buried and freshly stowed—the dodgy dealings of a local ironworks, the truth behind the Hobblers’ secret meetings, her own ancestor’s ambitious plans—all the while exhausting the patience of Inspector Hewitt. But it’s not long before the evidence starts falling into place, and Flavia must take drastic action to prevent another violent attack.

But who better to sum up the plot than Flavia herself? “It was all so confoundedly complicated: the attack upon Fenella, the gruesome death of Brookie Harewood, the sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of Porcelain, Harriet’s firedogs turning up in not one but three locations, the strange antique shop of the abominable Pettibones, Miss Mountjoy and the Hobblers, Vanetta Harewood’s long-lost portrait of Harriet, and underneath it all, like the rumble of a stuck organ pipe, the constant drone of Father’s looming bankruptcy.

Barrelling along on her bicycle through the leafy, sun-dappled lanes near her home in the English countryside, Flavia de Luce rides out of the pages of Alan Bradley’s new mystery and straight into our hearts. She’s got all the attributes that you’d expect to find in a middle-aged amateur sleuth: a solid network of connected villagers who pass on trivial bits of information that turn out to be important, an insatiable curiosity, a determination to see wrongs put right and an unwillingness to stay out of things that are really none of her business. Except she’s 11. And in this remarkably self-possessed girl, Alan Bradley has created one of the most endearing protagonists the traditional mystery genre, typified by the works of Agatha Christie, has seen in a very long time.

As satisfying as the mystery is, the multiple award-winning Bradley offers more. At this point in his series, he allows Flavia to reveal her insecurities and frailties so readers who found her insufferably precocious in the first book, with her vast knowledge of chemistry and just about everything else, may warm to her in this one. Despite the hard-shell appearance of her disdain for her sisters, she is deeply hurt by their cruel taunts, and as she grieves the aching, unbearable loss of her mother, Harriet, who died when Flavia was a baby, she exposes the depth of a wound that will never heal. There is almost an allegorical, fairy-tale quality to her life – the mean older sisters, the father trying to raise three demanding, idiosyncratic daughters on his own. The only thing missing is the wicked stepmother.

The book is beautifully written, with fully fleshed characters, even the minor ones such as odd-job man Dogger and Mrs. Mullet, who rules in the kitchen. The descriptions are vivid and lyrical: “Now, almost two weeks into the harvest, most of the countryside had traded its intense summer green for a paler, grayish shade, as if Mother Nature had nodded off a little, and let the colours leak away.”

The title turns out to be a sly play on words. We know the importance of the red herring in a mystery story as a literary device to distract the reader from what’s important or to point her in a different direction. But it can also mean an extremely strong-smelling fish, and the heavy odour of fish in this story is a real clue, not a red herring.

Happy Ever After

A couple summer ago I started reading the Bridal Quartet series. I was looking for an easy "summer read" and soon fell in love with the characters and concept behind the story. Following four driven, and independent women, their seamless wedding planning business, and their journeys to find their own one true loves, these books pretty much capture every girls dream. Norah Roberts recently completed the series with Happy Ever After, tailing the last of the four best friends.

As wedding planner for Vows, Parker Brown manages to make every wedding the perfect day for her clients. From demanding brides to feuding guests to last-minute menu changes, Parker can handle anything and anyone with aplomb. Nothing and no one rattles her, until Malcomb Kavanaugh unexpectedly kisses her one day after helping her fix a flat tire. At first, Parker dismisses the kiss as just another twist to Malcomb’s always flirtatious nature, but as it turns out, the sexy auto mechanic really is interested in starting something with Parker. Somehow, though, the whole idea of a serious romantic relationship with Malcomb is enough to rattle her. Roberts, the reigning Queen of Romance, brings her Bride Quartet series to a splendidly satisfying conclusion with another deliciously sexy and delightfully humorous contemporary romance that perfectly celebrates the importance of love, friendship, and family in any woman’s life.

When God Was a Rabbit

I always enjoy Heather's Picks, the CEO of Chapters and Indigo's personal favourites. So this week while browsing for a new book, I went to the table that holds her most recent picks and noticed one that I had not seen before. This weeks fabulously quirky novel, When God Was a Rabbit, written by Sarah Winman was a genuinely captivating read. It was at times laugh-out-loud funny, at others gut-wrenchingly sad, this book is peppered with unique and complex characters who are so original, well-observed and believable that you'll be completely absorbed into their world. It is a story of siblings, friendship, secrets and love, told with sadness and humour. It perfectly captures the hazy, magical nature of youth and all its mysteries, against a backdrop of real-life events.

On the brink of adolescence, Elly observes the world with both a childish sense of wonder and the unflinching, no-nonsense perspective of a young person. Her world is shaped by those who inhabit it: her loving but maddeningly distractible parents; a best friend who smells of chips and knows exotic words like 'slag'; an ageing fop who tapdances his way into her home, a Shirley Bassey impersonator who trails close behind; lastly, of course, a rabbit called God. In a childhood peppered with moments both ordinary and extraordinary, Elly's one constant is her brother Joe.

Twenty years on, Elly and Joe are fully grown and as close as they ever were. Until, that is, one bright morning and a single, earth-shattering event that threatens to destroy their bond for ever.

Spanning four decades and moving between suburban Essex, the wild coast of Cornwall and the streets of New York, this is a story about childhood, eccentricity, the darker side of love and sex, the pull and power of family ties, loss and life. More than anything, it's a story about love in all its forms.

Just a little over half way through this book, we are brought to the morning of 9/11. This may sound bad, but I started to loose interest. I couldn't see how this storyline could be different from the countless others on this topic. However, being a person who cannot not finish a book, I continued turning the pages, and I am so glad that I did. As the events of 9/11 came into focus, Winman handled it in a refreshing and unpredictable way. The plot continued to be compelling throughout; rendered with an appealing frankness, precision and emotional acuity.

I think what I liked most about this novel is that it was a rollicking family story - in which we get to know a fairly large cast of eccentric and unconventional characters and follow them through some tricky decades. It is recognizably true and heart-breaking in equal measure. Winman's narrative voice is beautifully true, with a child's unsentimental clarity which maintains its energy; and even at her most precocious, Elly never wears out her welcome.

Before I Fall

A few weeks ago I had been asking people for suggestions of books to read, and one of my friends had mention Before I Fall, written by Lauren Oliver, which became this weeks read. To be honest at first I was not very interested in this book, hence me putting it off for several weeks, but the guilt of my friend asking me every few days if I had started was more than I could handle. Before I fall is a story starring a popular high school girl. Now I wasn't much of a fan of high school girls when I was in high school, so to dedicate a week of my life to read about them, was almost more than I was willing to do, but this book surprised me. Before I Fall is smart, complex, and heartbreakingly beautiful. Lauren Oliver has written an extraordinary debut novel about what it means to live—and die.

What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life? Samantha Kingston has it all: the world's most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High—from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last. Then she gets a second chance. Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

Admittedly this book started out a little slow, but as Oliver, in a raw, emotional, and, at times, beautiful voice, explored the power we have to affect the people around us in this intensely believable first novel, I was drawn in and eagerly awaited to what Samantha would learn, and how she would deal with her situation.

What The Dog Saw

Throughout this year I have read all three of Malcolm Gladwell's books, and in each he has settling me onto a cushion of received ideas, then yanked it out from under me, challenging me to think deeper and more abstractly, and providing me with a lot of information I didn't even know that I was interested in. Why are there dozens of varieties of mustard-but only one variety of ketchup? What do football players teach us about how to hire teachers? What does hair dye tell us about the history of the 20th century? In the past decade, Malcolm Gladwell has written three books that have radically changed how we understand our world and ourselves: The Tipping Point; Blink; and Outliers. Now, in What the Dog Saw, he brings together, for the first time, the best of his writing from The New Yorker over the same period.

What The Dog Saw presents nineteen brilliantly researched and provocative essays that exhibit the curiosity his readers love, each with a graceful narrative that leads to a thought-provoking analysis. The explorations here delve into subjects as varied as why some people choke while others panic; how changes meant to make a situation safer — like childproof lids on medicine — don't help because people often compensate with more reckless behavior; and the idea that genius is inextricably tied up with precocity.

"You don't start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it's the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world," writes Gladwell in the preface to What The Dog Saw. In each piece, he offers a glimpse into the minds of a startling array of fascinating characters. "We want to know what it feels like to be a doctor," he insists, rather than what doctors do every day, because "Curiosity about the interior life of other people's day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses." Like no other writer today, Gladwell satisfies this impulse brilliantly, energizing and challenging his readers.

What The Dog Saw is organized thematically into three categories:

Part One contains stories about what Gladwell calls "minor geniuses," people like Ron Popeil, the pitchman who by himself conceived, created, and sold the Showtime rotisserie oven to millions on TV, breaking every rule of the modern economy.

Part Two demonstrates theories, or ways of organizing experience. For example, "Million-Dollar Murray" explores the problem of homelessness — how to solve it, and whether solving it for the most extreme and costly cases makes sense as policy. In this particular piece, Gladwell looks at a controversial program that gives the chronic homeless the keys to their own apartments and access to special services while keeping less extreme cases on the street to manage on their own.

In Part Three, Gladwell examines the predictions we make about people. "How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well?" he asks. He writes about how educators evaluate young teachers, how the FBI profiles criminals, how job interviewers form snap judgments. He is candid in his skepticism about these methods but fascinated by the various attempts to measure talent or personality.

The themes of the collection are a good way to characterize Gladwell himself: a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.

"Good writing," Gladwell says in his preface, "does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head." What the Dog Saw is yet another example of the buoyant spirit and unflagging curiosity that have made Malcolm Gladwell our most brilliant investigator of the hidden extraordinary. The book is an invaluable gift for his existing fans, and the ideal introduction for new readers.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Complicated Kindness

My Mom's best and oldest friend is part of a book club, and over the last couple of years I have begun looking to her for suggestions. She was the one who introduced me to Water for Elephants and Room, both of which have become favourite reads, so when we were over for Christmas eve dinner, I began perusing her bookshelves for some ideas. One of the first ones that she handed me was A Complicated Kindness, written by the award wining Canadian author Miriam Toews, and this weeks book. Told with exquisite tone, Toews seduces the reader with her tenderness, astute observation and piquant humour. This novel captures the struggles of a family and its individuals in a fresh, wondrous style, in a voice both defiant and vulnerable. Toews offers hilarious and heartbreaking reflections on life, death, family, faith and love. But despite this complexity of family tensions, much of A Complicated Kindness is pleasantly plotless. The looseness of Nomi's worldview, the sometimes blurry nonfocus of it, the unexpected sideways humour, make this book the beautiful and bitter little masterpiece it is. This searing, tender, comic testament to family love will break your heart.

"We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland, and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno."

In this stunning, insightful, and irreverent coming-of-age novel, Toews balances grief and hope in the voice of a witty, beleaguered teenager, whose family is trapped in a town governed by fundamentalist religion, and in the shattered remains of a family it destroyed. A laconic and restless sixteen year old Nomi rebels against the conventions of her strict Mennonite community where nothing happens with mesmerizing authenticity, and tries to come to terms with the collapse of her family. "Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing" Nomi explains. As the novel begins, Nomi struggles to cope with the back-to-back departures three years earlier of Tash, her beautiful and mouthy sister who "was so earmarked for damnation it wasn't even funny", and Trudie, her warm and spirited mother. When Tash left town, she tried to persuade Nomi to leave their mixed-up family too. ''Walk away,'' she commanded. ''What have I taught you?'' But Nomi was not, and is not, the type to cut and run. ''You taught me,'' she thinks to herself, ''that some people can leave and some can't and those who can will always be infinitely cooler than those who can't and I'm one of the ones who can't because you're one of the ones who did and there's this old guy in a wool suit sitting in an empty house who has no one but me now thank you very, very, very much.''

Nomi lives with her gentle, uncommunicative father, Ray, a sweet yet hapless and adrift schoolteacher whose love is unconditional but whose parenting skills amount to benign neglect. Father and daughter deal with their losses in very different ways. Ray, a committed elder of the church, seeks to create an artificial sense of order by reorganizing the city dump late at night. Nomi, on the other hand, favours chaos as she plunges into bittersweet memory and grapples with teenage life in a "kind of a cult with pretend connections to some normal earthly conventions." Once a "curious, hopeful child" Nomi now relies on biting humor as her life spins out of control—she stops attending school, shaves her head and wanders around in a marijuana-induced haze. Still, she and Ray are linked in a tender, if fragile, partnership as each slips into despair, and live in a limbo of unanswered questions.

There is so much that’s accomplished and fine. The momentum of the narrative, the quality of the storytelling, the startling images, the unsentimental prose, the poignant character interactions, the brilliant rendering of a time and place, the observant, cataloguing eye of the writer, her great grace. But if I had to name Miriam Toews’s crowning achievement, it would be the creation of Nomi Nickel, who deserves to take her place beside Daisy Goodwill Flett, Pi Patel and Hagar Shipley as a brilliantly realized character for whom the reader comes to love.

"This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. The town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of unhappiness. Silentium. People here just can’t wait to die, it seems. It’s the main event. The only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My guidance counsellor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this place and learn to love it. But I do, I told her. Oh, that’s rich, she said. That’s rich. . ."

Toews embodies Nomi's voice with such an authentic and manic charm that it's hard not to fall in love with her. Her portrayal of teenage angst, Mennonite-style, is hilarious. Nomi’s a natural dissident, with the kind of personality that can’t help but expose hypocrisy and fear – a girl fated to overturn rocks, uncovering hissing toads. While scraping away the appearances in her small town, she offers what she finds in a voice that is wry, vulnerable, sacrilegious and, best of all, devastatingly funny.

In novel full of original characters, Toews has created a feisty but appealing young heroine. As an indictument against religious fundamentalism, A Complicated Kindness is timely. As a commentary on character it is fresh and inventive, and as storytelling it is first rate. Bold, tender and intelligent, this is a clear-eyed exploration of belief and belonging, and the irresistible urge to escape both.

A Complicated Kindness works its way up to a powerful ending through the accumulation of anecdote and detail. Toew’s sense of the absurd works brilliantly to expose the hypocrisy of fundamentalist kindness, a love in reality all too conditional. A Complicated Kindness, at its core, is a depiction of the battle between hope and despair. Yet along the way we are treated to an unforgettable summer with a heroine who loses everything but is ultimately able to hold on to life, to a sense of herself, and to maintain her courage and optimism In the face of a world without any guaranteed happy endings.


This was one of those weeks that I walked into the bookstore without the slightest idea of what I would leave with. While I was pursuing the different sections I came across this weeks book, Daniel, written by the Swedish writer Henning Mankell. It was the cover that caught my attention. A profile shot of a young boy. From the picture alone I was curious to learn about the boy and his story, and what a remarkable story it was. This is the sort of novel that takes your breath away because of its intensity and depth of perception into someone's life and suffering. Evocative and sometimes brutal, the novel takes Daniel through a series of tragedies and betrayals that culminate in a shocking act. Mankell tells this indelible story with a ruthless elegance all his own.

In the 1870's, Hans Bengler, an extremely odd Swedish naturalist, is engaged in an entomological quest that sends him to the Kalahari Desert in search of a newfound beetle he will be able to name and thus achieve some kind of immortality. But then he impulsively adopts a young San orphan, a boy he christens Daniel and brings with him back to Sweden—a quite different specimen than he first contemplated. Daniel is told to call Bengler "Father," taught to knock on doors and bow, and continually struggles to understand this strange new land of mud and snow that surrounds and seemingly entraps him. At the same time, he is haunted by visions of his murdered parents calling him home to Africa. Knowing that the only way home is by sea, he decides he must learn to walk on water if he is ever to reclaim his true place in the world.

“I’m a little boy, he thought. I have travelled much too far away. My parents and the other people I lived with are dead. And yet they live. They are still closer to me than the man called Father and the woman who doesn’t dare come close enough for me to grab her. My journey has been much too long. I am in a desert I do not recognize, and the sounds that surround me are foreign.”

The first part of the book is narrated by the collector, and the second part by Daniel. I think Mankell has captured Daniel's voice beautifully and there is such agony and longing in his childish desire to find his way back to the desert. He is only about 9 or 10 years old and he tries to understand the Swedish culture he lives in, but his interior dialogue is with his parents and the desert he wants to go back to. Mankell fully understands Daniel's radically different cultural perspective and indelibly captures the boy's longing to return to his homeland and the tragic consequences of his forced exile.

There are twists and turns to this tale that the reader must discover for themselves. At its heart, this book is a powerful indictment against cultural insensitivity and willful dislocation, merged with a refusal to see those who are different as fully human. For everyone he meets, Daniel is no more than a curiosity, a specimen, a reflection of private fear or vaulting ambition. And therein lies the tragedy, which culminates in an ending of exquisite pathos.

No Great Mischief

Family is one of the most important things to me, for it is our families that we share and celebrate all of the joys and tragedies life has to offer. So when I found this weeks book I knew I would enjoy it. No Great Mischief, written by Canadian author Alistair MacLead, is an intricate tale of truth about people who care for one another and for the living world around them. This novel is pervaded by humour and colour, intensely vivid, with enduring truths couched in pellucid prose. It speaks of great loves and tragic losses that will move readers in every corner of the world.

No Great Mischief tells the sprawling story of one Scottish clan, the MacDonalds, who come to Cape Breton from Scotland in the 18th century and struggle valiantly to maintain their pride and identity up through the end of the millennium. The narrative is in the hands of a rather staid Ontario orthodontist, Alexander MacDonald, who guides us through his family’s mythic past as he recollects the heroic stories of his people: loggers, miners, drinkers, adventurers; men forever in exile, forever linked to their clan. There is the legendary patriarch who left the Scottish Highlands in 1779 and resettled in “the land of trees,” where his descendents became a separate Nova Scotia clan. There is the team of brothers and cousins, expert miners in demand around the world for their dangerous skills. And there is Alexander and his twin sister, who have left Cape Breton and prospered, yet are haunted by the past. What emanates is a loving retrieval of a people's native strategy of survival through history and across a changing landscape. Elegiac, hypnotic, by turns joyful and sad, No Great Mischief is a spellbinding story of family, loyalty, exile, and of the blood ties that bind us, generations later, to the land from which our ancestors came.

From the moment Alexander MacDonald sets out along Highway 3 to visit his alcoholic brother, this sturdily textured debut novel never hesitates or meanders. There are plenty of diverse characters who possess strength and depth, and continue to linger in your mind. The vivid and changing scenes, and gripping incidents are laced with grace and wisdom. Four generations of MacDonalds move through the pages of this book, from the first to arrive in Cape Breton from Scotland to narrator Alexander and his siblings. MacLeod, who has been heralded in his native Canada as a master of the short story, exhibits a remarkable ability to create and handle an intricate plot that goes back and forth between past and present. Though sentimentality plays a considerable part in the unfolding of the drama, MacLeod's clever writing disciplines and subdues it.

Generations after their forebears went into exile, the MacDonalds still face seemingly unmitigated hardships and cruelties of life. But, like all the clansman, they are sustained by a family history that seems to run through their veins. The MacDonalds find strength and support in their shared history, the resurrection of their Gaelic heritage, and their family creed: "take care of your blood". It's through these lovingly recounted stories-wildly comic or heartbreakingly tragic-that we discover the hope against hope upon which every family must sometimes rely.

The novel's title quotes General Wolfe, who had fought against the MacDonalds in an earlier conflict but relied on them to take the Plains of Abraham: 'They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.' Wolfe regarded the Highlanders as his secret enemies, and was furious at their insistence on carrying their wounded from the field when ordered to retreat. Here in the public record are themes that the book explores more domestically: a self-sacrificial code of honour, and the betrayal that lies in wait for it.

This is a simply great novel. The simplicity lies in the device of the plot. The greatness lies in its scope, imagination, and execution. MacLead's message beguiles, his prose captivates, and his narrative never loosens a deceptively gentle grip. MacLeod’s descriptions are remarkable, and you will find scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever.

Sh*t My Dad Says

A book came out, and last month it hit No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, edging out Laura Bush's memoir. When Halpern told his father this, the reaction was phlegmatic. 'Trust me,' Halpern Snr said of Bush. 'She doesn't give a fuck. She could have you killed."

I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of humour. I enjoy quick wit and sarcasm, and appreciate when people say it how it is and get to the point. After last weeks book, Beyond Belfast, I was on a bit of a humour kick. This weeks book, Sh*t My Dad Says, written by Justin Halpern, had been catching my eye for the last couple of weeks, and I figured now was as good a time as any other to sit back and enjoy a few laughs. Sh*t My Dad Says is a chaotic, hilarious, true portrait of a father-son relationship from a major new comic voice.

'At 28 years old, I found myself living at home, with my 73-year-old father. As a child, my father never minced words, and when I screwed up, he had a way of cutting right through the bullshit and pointing out exactly why I was being an idiot. When I moved back in I was still, for the most part, an idiot. But this time, I was smart enough to write down all the things he said to me…'

After being dumped by his longtime girlfriend, twenty-eight-year-old Justin Halpern found himself living at home with his seventy-three-year-old dad. As Justin says at one point, his dad is ‘like Socrates, but angrier, and with worse hair’; and has never minced words. Sh*t My Dad Says is an all-American story that unfolds on the Little League field, in Denny's, during excruciating family road trips, and, most frequently, in the Halperns' kitchen over bowls of Grape-Nuts. When Justin moved back home, he began to record all the ridiculous things his dad said to him. Now, almost one million people follow Mr Halpern’s philosophical musings every day on Twitter, and in this book, his son weaves a brilliantly funny, touching coming-of-age memoir around the best of his sayings. What emerges is a chaotic, hilarious, true portrait of a father and son relationship from a major new comic voice.

"Happy Birthday, I didn’t get you a present… Oh, mom got you one? Well, that’s from me then, too – unless it’s shitty."

"Pick your furniture like you pick a wife; it should make you feel comfortable and look nice, but not so nice that if someone walks past it they want to steal it."

"Your brother brought his baby over this morning. He told me it could stand. It couldn’t stand for shit. Just sat there. Big let down."

As Justin grows up the book captures the awkward formative moments between father and son, the hangovers, the first break-up and the "sex education" that consisted of Halpern Snr presenting his son with a pile of condoms. Despite this tough love, a sense of deep fondness runs all the way through and ultimately it's the story of a father trying to teach his son right from wrong and bring him up the best way he can. In many ways Halpern Snr is the voice of reason in a world where we spend too long pussy-footing around, fearful of creating offence.

"Why the f*ck would I want to live to 100? I’m 73 and shit’s starting to get boring. By the way, there’s no money left when I go, just fyi."

"All I ask is that you pick up your shit so you don't leave your bedroom looking like it was used for a gang bang."

"You seen my cell phone? What's it look like? Like two horses f*ucking. It's a phone, son. It looks like a phone."

Bigoted, rude, filthy - and currently conquering America... Shit My Dad Says encompasses far more, however, than the 118 tweets Halpern has so far put up on his site. A mix of personal reminiscence and self-deprecating humour, the book takes in his childhood, 1980s America, his relationships with his brothers, his failings in Hollywood, giant steaks, drunk college blondes, and, of course, countless scatological jokes: a funny, silly, well-observed tribute to American male-hood. The book is straight up hilarious, dry and wry and full of vim, thanks, mostly, to the brilliant character of Halpern Snr.'

"That woman was sexy. . . . Out of your league? Son, let women figure out why they won't screw you. Don't do it for them."

"Do people your age know how to comb their hair? It looks like two squirrels crawled on their heads and started f*cking."

"The worst thing you can be is a liar. . . . Okay, fine, yes, the worst thing you can be is a Nazi, but then number two is liar. Nazi one, liar two."

I picked up Sh*t My Dad Says from the store, and went immediately to a very crowed cafe, where I ordered my drink and sat back in the big velvety armchairs to devour this book. A public place is probably not the best setting to read this book, especially if you are alone. I found myself on the other end of many uncomfortable looks, as I tried and failed to stifle my hysterical laughter. This is a book that you can open to any page and discover yourself in a fit of laughter before you have read more than three lines. It's perfect to read in an afternoon, or keep by your bed to read a few lines to start and finish off your days. Anyone that appreciates blunt wit and sarcasm, as well as a few profanities, needs to have this book in their possession.

"Put the rake down. I don't wanna sit around watching you 'give it your best.' Either stop sucking or get the fuck out of the way."

"You came out of your mom looking like shit. She thought you were beautiful. Don't know what scared me most, your looks or her judgment."

"Nervous? In 5 billion years the sun will burn out and nothing you did will matter. Feel better?"

Here are a couple links to follow Justin and Harper Sr, as they continue to share their stories and wisdom.

Beyond Belfast

For some reason, quite unknown to me, I have always been attracted to Ireland. It started with the celtic music when I began Irish dancing, and I soon fell in love with the country. Everything from the culture to the language, the pubs to the rolling green hills, there was just something about it that drew me in. I had been looking for a book that was set in Ireland, and had been having trouble finding one until this week. I walked into my favourite Chapters store and started browsing the tables that were so optimistically labeled; new and hot fiction, read it before you wrap it, stores twenty bestsellers, when I noticed a bright yellow book with an oversized green shamrock on the cover. Unable to ignore it, I walked over to see that it was titled Beyond Belfast. After reading the short summary I realized that I had finally found the perfect book to fill my Irish craving. This book was lively, knowledgeable, opinionated, disrespectful, debatable and immensely readable.

Beyond Belfast, written by the savagely hilarious Canadian author, Will Ferguson, is offbeat and charming, and filled with humour, insight, and a wide array of eccentric characters. It tells the story of one man's misguided attempt at walking the entire Ulster Way: a 560-mile path that circles Northern Ireland, from the city walls of Derry to the moorland heights of the Sperrins, from the green glens of Antrim to the Mountains of Mourne. Along the way, Ferguson, grandson of a Belfast orphan, uncovers his own hidden family history. There are clues about a lost inheritance, a mysterious photograph, rumours of a vast estate: the truth when it comes is both surprising and funny

Taking place the year after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, his journey captures something of the atmosphere of Northern Ireland at the beginning of a precarious and uncertain peace, or, as Ferguson remarks, "the absence of war, which is not quite the same thing". The narrative is punctuated with historical and political musings, triggered by the places he visits and by his encounters on the route. His thoughts are informed by a fair amount of reading, a keen sense of observation and a humane disposition.

Ferguson writes with a fine sense of historical irony and a deep revulsion for the ways in which loyalist and republican paramilitaries have treated people as expendable pawns, destroying lives for their respective causes. He is also unsettled by the “the tacit approval given to terrorists and bigots,” and exasperated by the self-censorship that is often necessary for survival. “I was tired of being neutral,” he says at one point, “of having silence forced upon me by unstated threats.”

Sometimes, when he decides to speak his mind, he runs greater risks than he realizes. You do not tell loyalists in the most Orange part of Belfast, on the most Orange day of the year, that in burning the Irish tricolour they are “almost burning their own flag” because one of the colours is orange. Not if you want to live a long and happy life, anyway. Still, he got away with it, possibly because of his Canadian accent, and lived to tell the tale. There's a tale within the tale as well: the heart-rending story of Ferguson's orphaned Ulster grandfather, who came to Canada, and the quest to uncover the hidden family history. Both tales, of routes and roots, are born of desire to reconnect with the past, and speak in their related ways to the perduring power of Ulster Protestant ethnicity in Canada. They are funny, intelligent and well worth hearing.

Ferguson narrowly survives death by lorry, drowning, mugging, wayward bulls, frenzied dogs and electrified fences. He is up to his ankles in cow shite, he is chilled to the bone, he hikes in waterlogged boots, he is often lost, and for long stretches of time he is lonely, with only his own footprints for company. All this would knock the romantic stuffing out of anyone. And yet, he also come across majestic scenery, magnificent views and breathtaking landscapes. If heaven is a replay of the “softest and finest moments of our lives,” he writes, “I'll see more than a few fleeting images of Northern Ireland move past.” It is, as he says, "a land of contrasts"; during his travels, he meets with occasional meanness, but much generosity of spirit and many small acts of kindness.

Will Ferguson's talent as a satirist is to be treasured. He writes refreshingly, provocatively and at times eloquently. He takes on issues from a contrarian's perspective, but never exceeds the bounds of reason. He looks for the essence and his search sometimes brings out some smashingly insightful stuff. Ferguson possesses a crafty eye for detail, not to mention a highly developed understanding of the essential folly in what passes for everyday life.

When I started this Journey Through Literature, I began marking pages in the books that I was reading that I wanted to come back to. They usually had some kind of quote I like, or a word, event, or person that I wanted to know more about. While reading Beyond Belfast, most of the pages I marked contained phrases and conversations laced with Irish wit and humour, such as 
"The titanic was built in the shipyards of belfast.... still a sensitive topic, that, and even when asked about the titanic, people in belfast will tell you "it was fine when it left."" In order to share all the things I marked down, I would be relaying near full chapters of this book, so instead I will just insist that If you enjoy travel, humour, and authenticity, you should without a doubt read this book. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Some weeks I have an idea of a book I want to read, perhaps one that I have been noticing or a recommendation from someone, and sometimes, as is the case with this week, I have no idea what I am going to leave the bookstore with. I'm not sure what drew me to pick up Tinkers, written by Paul Harding, but after reading the summary, I realized that the content of the novel was like nothing that I had read about before, and felt compelled to leave the store, book in tow. Tinkers is about the legacy of consciousness and the porousness of identity from one generation to the next. At once heartbreaking and life affirming, it is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, and the fierce beauty of nature. It is spellbinding, written with breathtaking lyricism and tenderness, Harding has created a rare and beautiful novel of spiritual inheritance and acute psychological and metaphysical suspense.

An old man lies dying. Confined to bed in his living room, he sees the walls around him begin to collapse, the windows come loose from their sashes, and the ceiling plaster fall off in great chunks, showering him with a lifetime of debris: newspaper clippings, old photographs, wool jackets, rusty tools, and the mangled brass works of antique clocks. Soon, the clouds from the sky above plummet down on top of him, followed by the stars, till the black night covers him like a shroud. He is hallucinating, in death throes from cancer and kidney failure.

As time collapses into memory, George Washington Crosby travels deep into his past where he is reunited with his father and relives the wonder and pain of his impoverished New England youth. George repairs clocks for a living, and as he lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room, "right where they put the dining room table, fitted with its two extra leaves for holiday dinners" he revisits his turbulent childhood as the oldest son of an epileptic smalltime traveling salesman. The descriptions of the father's epilepsy and the cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure are stunning, and the household's sadness permeates the narrative as George returns to more melancholy scenes. In Harding’s skillful evocation, Crosby’s life, seen from its final moments, becomes a mosaic of memories, ‘showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.’

A tinker is a mender, and in Harding’s spellbinding debut, he imagines the old, mendable horse-and-carriage world. The objects of the past were more readily repaired than our electronics, but the living world was a mystery, as it still is, as it always will be. And so in this rhapsodic novel of impending death, Harding considers humankind’s contrary desires to conquer the “imps of disorder” and to be one with life, fully meshed within the great glimmering web.

Harding’s interest is in the universalities: nature and time and the murky character of memory. The small, important recollections are rendered with an exactitude that is poetic. This is a book so meticulously assembled that vocabulary choices like “craquelure” and “scrieved” – far from seeming pretentious – serve as reminders of how precise and powerful a tool good English can be. The prose are lyrical and specific, making this novel a poignant exploration of where we may journey when the clock has barely a tick or two left and we really can’t go anywhere at all. It is an especially gorgeous example of novelistic craftsmanship.

"Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets. There was also the ring in Howard Crosby's ears, a ring that began at a distance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed into them. His head thrummed as if it were a clapper in a bell. Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode on the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling. This was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure. Howard had epilepsy."

Harding's language dazzles whether he's describing the workings of clocks, sensory images of nature, the many engaging side characters who populate the book, or even a short passage on how to build a bird nest. The most memorable parts of this novel may be the depiction of a nineteenth-century landscape complete with mule-drawn carts and “frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it.” Tinkers is a finely crafted piece of work by a writer who clearly respects his own trade.

"Now the horologist looks upon an open-faced, fairy-book contraption; gears lean to and fro like a lazy machine in a dream. The universe's time cannot be marked thusly. Such a crooked and flimsy device could only keep the fantastic hours of unruly ghosts." 

At only a very brief 192 pages, it still packs an emotional punch that books of three times its length often lack. It's a novel that you'll want to savor for its stunning yet economical use of language, for its descriptions of nature, of illness and health, and for its profound understanding of humanity's deepest needs and desires for family and home. I found reading it to be an incredibly moving experience, yet Harding is in such control of his material that it never devolves into mushiness or becomes maudlin.

Tinkers is a novel rich in close observation, short in dialogue and event. While normally this would be a cloying combination, the sharp richness of Harding’s language and the precision of his descriptions makes the novel both transfixing and compelling. Harding brings a clarity to the work which sets it clearly apart. This is underscored, resoundingly, by the deep emotional effect of the novel’s closing pages, a moment of grace, of synchronicity, of father and son, which will break your heart. Tinkers confers on the reader the best privilege fiction can afford, the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls, and is cumulatively moving because it is woven together into the single quilt of our humanity.

"Light changes, our eyes blink and see the world from the slightest difference of perspective and our place in it has changed infinitely..." 

The Imperfectionists

"The Internet is to news, what car horns are to music."
This weeks book is one that I have had in the back of my mind for a little while. The first thing that caught my attention was the title, The Imperfectionists. I am someone that always strived for perfection, whether it was school projects, or cooking, I wanted them to fulfill my idea of perfection. But I have come to learn that sometimes it's when we let loose and are completely spontaneous that we have the most memorable experiences. When I saw the title I was curious to read deft stories about delectable, difficult characters, who were living messy, impulsive lives, and witness as they worked through trails and triumphs. This was a rich, thrilling book that is both a love letter to and epitaph for the newspaper world. Rachman’s transition from journalism to fiction writing is nothing short of spectacular. The Imperfectionists is a splendid original, filled with wit and structured so ingeniously that figuring out where the author is headed is half the reader’s fun. The other half comes from his sparkling descriptions not only of newspaper office denizens but of the tricks of their trade, presented in language that is smartly satirical yet brimming with affection.

Printing presses whirr, ashtrays smolder, and the endearing complexity of humanity plays out in Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Set against the backdrop of a fictional English-language newspaper based in Rome, it begins as a celebration of the beloved and endangered role of newspapers and the original 24/7 news cycle. Yet Rachman pushes beyond nostalgia by crafting an apologue that better resembles a modern-day Dubliners than a Mad Men exploration of the halcyon past. The chaos of the newsroom becomes a stage for characters unified by a common thread of circumstance, with each chapter presenting an affecting look into the life of a different player. From the comically overmatched greenhorn to the forsaken foreign correspondent, we suffer through the painful heartbreaks of unexpected tragedy and struggle to stifle our laughter in the face of well-intentioned blunders. This cacophony of emotion blends into a single voice, as the depiction of a paper deemed a "daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species" becomes more about the disillusion in everyday life than the dissolution of an industry.

Among the cast is Lloyd Burko, a past-his-prime reporter, married four times, alienated from all his children except one, whom he’s about to betray as a source, only to find. . . . Well, I won’t give that away, but it’s quite something. Then there’s Arthur Gopal, a sad-sack obituary writer devoted to his young daughter, Pickle. He’s sent off to Switzerland to interview a dying feminist intellectual. During a break, he switches on his cellphone to find 26 missed calls. His life is about to change.

Herman Cohen is the paper’s corrections editor, the grammarian and style cop indispensable to any newspaper. He writes thunderous, generally ignored memos about impermissible acronyms, solecisms and misspellings like “Sadism Hussein.” You feel his pain when Tony Blair is included on the newspaper’s list of “recently deceased Japanese dignitaries.” “He glances at the sorry trio of copy editors before him: Dave Belling, a simpleton far too cheerful to compose a decent headline; Ed Rance, who wears a white ponytail — what more need one say?; and Ruby Zaga, who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct. What is the value in remonstrating with such a feckless triumvirate?”

Kathleen Solson, the editor in chief, has just discovered that her ne’er-do-well husband is cheating on her. (There are lots of ne’er-do-wells in Rachman’s novel, making one wonder: Is this so very common among newspaper folk?) Kathleen is looking to rekindle an old romance with an Italian, now married and a government press flack: “Here he is, temples graying, eyes bagged, slightly handsome but slightly jowly, wearing the sleepy surrender of the family man.”

The funniest section, which comes off as a cross between Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” and a Hunter S. Thompson “Fear and Loathing” adventure, concerns the paper’s helpless young Cairo stringer, Winston Cheung, whose life is hilariously usurped by a fast-talking, on-the-make war correspondent.

Ruby Zaga, the copy editor, is a paranoid Miss Lonely hearts who always checks into a hotel on New Year’s Eve so she can pretend to be a stranded American business traveler rather than a dateless 40-something with no prospects. She hates her job and is terrified she’s about to be fired. She drunk-dials the Italian flack with whom her boss is trying to reconnect. Bad move, Ruby! But Rachman has a way of getting the reader to root for his losers.

Craig Menzies, the news editor, is informed one day that an e-mail photo of his much younger girlfriend, Annika, naked with another man, has been sent to everyone on the staff. He confronts Annika, who says she feels terrible about it all, but now she (and thus he) faces the prospect of being sued by the man in the picture — for breach of contract because she had promised to buy an apartment with him. Does Italian law actually permit spurned lovers to sue? How do you say in Italian, “Is this a great country, or what?”

One of the strangest but most arresting characters, Ornella de Monterecchi, is the Italian press officer’s mother. A kind of Miss Havisham with obsessive- compulsive disorder, she lives alone amid a mountain of clutter consisting of every issue of the paper from the late 1970s to the present day. These she insists on reading in sequence. The current date might be Feb. 18, 2007, but in her world, it’s April 23, 1994. When she runs into one of the staffers, she complains about his obituary of Richard Nixon, leaving him to scratch his head. Ornella, however, is no mere caricature. There is, as with Miss Havisham, a terrible personal tragedy to explain her bizarre existence.

The most Roald Dahl-esque episode is granted to Abbey Pinnola, the paper’s chief financial officer. Abbey, whose job includes sacking the paper’s employees, finds herself on a plane en route to Atlanta, headquarters of the now troubled Ott Group, seated next to a man she’s just canned. I won’t say more, other than that the end of her story provides that sudden intake of breath reminiscent of Dahl at his sang-froid-est.

"What I really fear is time. That's the devil: whipping us on when we'd rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won't hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales. My past- it doesn't feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It's as if the present me is constantly dissolving. There's that  line of Heraclitus: 'No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.' That's quite right. wWe enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn't the end of life but the end of memories." 

After reading this paragraph something went off in my head like a light bulb. It was probably something that was already there on a subconscious level, or something so obvious that I never really paid it much attention. Great authors need to have such a deep understanding on a wide variety of topics in order to create such diverse characters, plots, and ideas. Not only that, but they need to breathe so much life into them that they seem to be real, and the fact the Rachman can do this with so many characters in one work of literature is truly remarkable.

This book is filled with gorgeous writing, jolts of insight and narrative surprises that feel both unexpected and inevitable. Rachman leaves little doubt that he's writing what he knows well. His novel is sprinkled with hard-won observations such as that “news' is often a polite way of saying 'editor's whim' ” and “journalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males.” And yet even someone whose familiarity with newsrooms doesn't extend beyond the work of Clark Kent and Peter Parker will recognize these characters.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


My Dad is an avid reader, and over the years I have become more and more interested in the books that he recommends. While I was in my teens, I tried to appreciate the books that he had convinced me to read, but it has just been in the last couple of years, as I have made my way into adulthood, that I have sought recommendations from him, and not only enjoyed the read, but also the long conversations that we share after the final page.

This week while looking for a book, I once again found myself asking my Dad for suggestions. He had mentioned the title 1984 several times, so I decided it was time to find out why he kept coming back to this book. 1984 is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell's nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff's attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell's prescience of modern life, the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language, and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell.

This is the story of the down trodden and destinctly average Winston Smith who lives in post war London. Set in an imaginary future world that is dominated by three perpetually warring totalitarian police states, we accompany Winston in his attempt at subversion, and are unwilling witnesses of what that attempt brings about. Winston works in the Ministry of Truth altering documents that contradict current government statements and opinions, but when Winston begins to remember the past that he has worked so hard to destroy, he begins to turn against The Party. He begins a relationship with a woman who works for the Government, and though boyish and brash, she is still an attractive and likable character who compliments Smiths innocence beautifully. Even his quiet, practically undetectable form of anarchism is dangerous in a world filled with thought police and the omnipresent two-way telescreen, the ensuing imprisonment, torture, and reeducation of Smith are intended not merely to break him physically or make him submit but to root out his independent mental existence and his spiritual dignity.

1984, George Orwell's final novel, was written amidst the anti-communist hysteria of the cold war. But unlike Orwell's other famous political satire, Animal Farm, this novel is filled with bleak cynicism and grim pessimism about the human race. Orwell made in this book many observations that are no more merely fiction, but already things that manage to reduce our freedom. This is a book that only gets better with the passing of time, as you can read in it more and more implications. One of Orwell's main reasons for writting this "negative utopia" might have been to warn his readers against communism, but many years after his death and the fall of communism with the Berlin Wall, we can also interpret it as a caution against the excessive power of mass media, data mining, and their harrowing consequence, as well as the immoderate power of any government, even those who don't defend communism.

Technological innovation should be at the service of men, and allow them to live better lives, but it can be used against them. 

The people of Oceania are in the process of stripping down the English language to its bones, creating Newspeak. One of the new words created is doublethink, the act of believing that two conflicting realities exist. Such as when Winston sees a photograph of a non-person, but must reason that that person does not, nor ever has, existed. Some inspiration for Winston's work may have come from Russia. Where Stalin's right-hand man, Trotzky was erased from all tangible records after his dissention from the party. And the fear of telescreens harks back to the days when Stasi bugs were hooked to every bedpost, phone line and light bulb in Eastern Europe.

Orwell has created characters and events that are scarily realistic. Winston's narration brings the reader inside his head, and sympathetic with the cause of the would-be-rebels. There are no clear answers in the book, and it's often the reader who has to decide what to believe. But despite a slightly unresolved plot, the book serves its purpose. Orwell wrote this book to raise questions; and the sort of questions he raised have no easy answer.

1984, is not a novel for the faint of heart. It is a gruesome, saddening portrait of humanity, with it's pitfalls garishly highlighted. Its historic importance has never been underestimated; and it's reemergence as a political warning for the 21st century makes it deserving of a second look. Winston's world of paranoia and inconsistent realities is an eloquently worded account of a future we thought we buried in our past; but in truth may be waiting just around the corner.