Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tinkers by Paul Harding

You are walking the woods in winter. Milky sunlight seeps through the bare trees as you plod down the trail. The crunch-thud of snow under your boots the only sound disturbing the birds. You stumble across an old, rotten suitcase frozen in the snow. You know it is too heavy to lift because it's full of scattered images,  memories and the mysterious stuff that holds the Universe together. You look on it and weep. You walk away from it feeling strangely uplifted, like you've been gifted with a glimpse behind the curtain of reality, and what you saw there was wonderous.

That's as close as my clumsy words can get to the essence of this novel. It's powerful stuff. Some of Harding's sentences run a bit long, -for two pages at times- and can leave the reader  mentally winded, but it's an exhilarating workout. This is Paul Harding's first book. I can't wait for his next one.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

This is a great commentary on aboriginal issues in the 21st century. That being said, I did not find a single memorable character here and parts of it were a bit of a chore to get through. The elements that blend Native American folk tales with Biblical allegory were interesting, but after reading Joseph Boyden who raised the bar in this genre to almost unattainable heights, I was left a little cold with this one.

Stones Into Schools by Greg Mortenson

The war against radical Islam is going to be won with the pen, not the sword. No one understands this more intimately than Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute (click on that link and make a donation, you cheapskate). This chronicle of his mission to build schools for girls in the most isolated regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan will make you want to stand up and cheer. I did, and my dog looked at me like I was an idiot.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Very funny, satirical look at war-for-profit. Misha Vainberg is a walking metaphor for rampant, unchecked excess and apathy. He is, however strangely likeable and heroic in his own small way. If you're in the mood for some dry, sly wit with tons of symbolism thrown in, give this one a go.

And Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris

I loved the "first person collective" perspective. This novel about the banality and absurdity of modern working life comes roaring out of the gate but starts to lose steam in the final lap. It gains points for originality but loses a few for reminding us all how empty and meaningless time spent at work really is. Unless you have a super-important job like mine, of course. I'm MAKING A DIFFERENCE, goddammit.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

It's Hamlet. With dogs. Sounds good right? We all like puppies and have fond memories of reading Shakespeare in high school. Well, this is like beating the Bard to death with a Cesar Millan puppy training manual. That's a good thing. So is this book. Particularly, the chapters from the perspective of the family's matriarchal dog, Almondine.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Great book. I don't think I will ever forget Aminata looking at the most "recent" map of Africa and seeing nothing but hand-drawn pictures of lions and and monkeys in the interior, while on the coast, the "slave", and "gold" ports are clearly marked. She asks if all we know of her country is what we can take from it.
Such a powerful and insightful work.

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

There were at least two moments in this book where I was having trouble reading because I "had something in my eye". It strips away all pretense and offers up a cast of characters whose pettiness, weakness and grace paint a beautiful picture of human morality and redemption.

One small matter that nags at me though; the final meeting between Lyle Henderson and Connie Devlin. After "saving" him from suicide and listening to the story of what happened to his father in the woods, does Lyle simply walk away? Two generations of Henderson's suffered due to Connie's reckless selfishness and stupidity. For me, this was a significant plot strand that was never fully fleshed out.

Just to be clear though, this is NOT a complaint. This book wrapped it's cold, impoverished, east coast arms around me from the first page and never let go. A definite must-read. Just make sure you keep a box of Kleenex nearby for when you get something in your eye.

The Little Book by Selden Edwards

I have trouble with "larger than life" protagonists. There is nohing human to relate to here. Just a bunch of one-dimensional uber characters who do nothing more than advance a plot that will require a herculean suspension of disbelief. If you are one of those three people in the world with more than a passing interest in turn of the century Vienna, you might want to check it out, the other 6.7 billion of us can give it a pass.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

This book almost seems as though it were written by two vastly different authors. The first 200 pages or so are playful, thought provoking and inspired, somewhat reminiscent of Tom Robbins early work. Then, seemingly, the story gets handed over to a manic depressive Douglas Coupland-esque author who goes on to pen some 500 additional pages of dark, soul-crushing narrative in which the only discernable theme is: Life sucks. Then you die. Horribly.

It was like taking a vacation at one of those time-share condo deals. It was a lot of fun until the very serious looking fellow in the black suit told me I had to talk to him about the great opportunites of part-time condo ownership. And then he got all weepy and starting telling me about his personal problems and how futile and empty his life was. No continental breakfast is worth all that.

The Good Mayor by Andrew Nicoll

This was a nice, little surprise. Like finding a couple bucks in a pair of jeans you haven't worn in a while, or stumbling across one of your favorite movies on T.V. when there is nothing else on. The style is sparse and unassuming, characters are few yet fully realised and the tone never trods down that exhausting and well worn path of sadness and despair. This is, after all, just a simple story about what it means to love someone, and even though there is an inevitable tragedy built in to all great love stories, this wonderful book never lets that get in the way of its bouncy, optimistic feel. With The Good Mayor, Andrew Nicoll may just revitalize a genre that has been hijacked by Hallmark and Harlequin and restore it to its rightful place as one of the greatest and most profound themes in the human experience.

Fall by Colin McAdam

This one is going to be squirming around in my mushy head for a long time. A book so bursting with memorable lines, big ideas and snappy dialogue you'll annoy the people around you with the constant solicitation of "Hey! Listen to this!"

A unique stream of consciousness style that is best read in one sitting, Fall is pleasantly challenging at first, especially for someone (like myself) who is more used to linear first or third person narratives. Once you catch on though, you will find yourself amazed at how believable and disquieting it all is. This one should have won the Giller prize it was shortlisted for. I guess I'll just have to read The Bishop's Man and find out why the judges thought it was more worthy. It must come with a coupon for a free cookie or something.