Monday, November 27, 2006

The Lay of the Land

Richard Ford reads tonight (I kid you not, here in -33C Edmonton!) at Laurie Greenwood’s Volume II Books, at 7:30pm. Volume II is in the High Street area, near 124th Street and 102nd Ave. It isn’t a big place, so get there early to guarantee a spot!

Yes, that Richard Ford. A genuine American literary icon! A Pulitzer winner! Married to a woman who shot a .38 bullet through a book by a critic who dissed one of Ford's novels! Pal of Cormac McCarthy and other tough guy writer types!

Todd Babiak interviewed Ford in the Edmonton Journal recently, noting:
"American novelist Richard Ford is in Canada during the American version of Thanksgiving, that most mythic of holidays. The Lay of the Land, the third and probably final novel tracking the complexities and ruminations of New Jersey real estate agent and amateur philosopher Frank Bascombe, takes place over Thanksgiving. When Ford himself hunts birds for the purposes of eating, an autumn tradition that extends back to Puritan New England, he often does it in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

"I really can't wait to be in Edmonton," Ford said, over the telephone, in that Mississippi-modulated voice that matches Frank's style of jaunty rumination so perfectly that it is difficult to separate the two men, real and imagined. "I wish I was coming tomorrow."

An end-of-November blast of ridiculously cold weather would neither inconvenience Richard Ford nor Frank Bascombe. Like all things beyond our control, weather is really an entrance into the human heart.
As Babiak notes, The Lay of the Land is the third novel focused on Frank Bascombe, following The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995). To be perfectly honest, I don't know if I need to know more about Frank Bascombe. I really enjoyed The Sportswriter but found Independence Day overly long and scanty on incident. I remember saying "That's it?" when the big epiphany came! But Ford is a seriously good writer, so everyone should read him. Try one of his stories from his collections like A Multitude of Sins, Women with Men or Rock Springs [*absent from the Library collection at the moment - will be ordered forthwith].

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Judgment of Paris

The winners of the Governor General’s Literary Awards were announced today, with two ex-pat Canadians winning in the top two categories. In English Fiction the winner was Peter Behrens, for his first novel, The Law of Dreams. Behrens is from Montreal but now lives in Maine. In English Non-fiction the winner was Ross King, for his book The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that gave the World Impressionism. King is from Regina, Saskatchewan but has lived in England since 1992. Yes, it’s true – world-renowned art experts come from the same Prairie province as Brent Butt and Gordie Howe. I believe Ross King’s sister teaches in the English Dept. at the University of Alberta.

In an interview with Powell’s Books, here, King describes his newest book:
My new book … tells the story of how and why Impressionism started in Paris in the 1860s and early 1870s. I cover the art, politics and wars in the eleven years between the Salon des Refusés in 1863 and the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874. The book is a group portrait in a way, with Monet, Cézanne and Renoir in the frame. But most of all it's the story of two drastically different painters, Édouard Manet and Ernest Meissonier. They were opposites in virtually every way imaginable. They were known, in fact, as "the two poles of art." Meissonier was the world's most famous and most popular painter, garlanded with critical laurels and showered in huge sums of money. Manet, on the other hand, was a critical laughingstock who couldn't even give his paintings away. Their reputations have since reversed, but I try to take the reader back to a period when Manet's paintings -- especially works like “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe” and “Olympia” -- could scandalize and electrify a nation that was as obsessed with painters and painting as we are today with sports figures and other celebrities.

King’s award-winner is his third non-fiction book that looks at a crucial period in art or architecture, making a somewhat arcane subject accessible but without dumbing it down. His first was Brunelleschi’s Dome (2000), about the building of the famous dome in Florence’s cathedral, followed by Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling (2003), about the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling in Rome’s St. Peter’s Cathedral.

King is a bit of a renaissance man, with two well-received novels as well. His first novel, Domino (1995), is a “picaresque tale of art, artists, patrons, and ne'er-do-wells” set in 1770s England.

I recommended his second novel, Ex-Libris (2003), as a Gazette Pick in January of this year:
In 17th century London, bookseller Isaac Inchbold receives a cryptic summons to a remote country house. Inchbold is asked to restore a library ravaged by war, and in the process slips into an underworld of spies and smugglers, ciphers and forgeries. An intriguing literary thriller for fans of The Name of the Rose.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Fearsome Particles

An excellent double-header of a reading tonight in Edmonton: David Adams Richards and Trevor Cole. Both are at Audrey’s Books at 7:30pm. A somewhat unusual pairing I would think, as reviews of Richards' books usually contain the words "mournful" or "melancholic", while Cole's contain words like "funny" and "comic". The full gamut of emotions at this reading!

David Adams Richards has a shelf of awards, including a Giller (2000) and a GG Fiction (1988). His new novel, The Friends of Meagre Fortune has been called a Greek tragedy, set in the woods of New Brunswick's Miramichi in 1946, just as the lumber industry begins to change.

Trevor Cole is a long-time journalist and magazine writer who published his first novel, Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life in 2004. Norman Bray is a50-something Torontonian, an actor and, to be blunt, a pompous ass. Cole's fabulous, witty writing enables the reader to have some sympathy for an unlikeable character who can't see beyond the end of his nose.

Cole's new book, The Fearsome Particles, is darker than Norman Bray but still funny. It focuses on a dysfunctional family; a father who is the #2 guy at a failing window screen company, a mother who makes houses for sale homey and might be losing her mind, and the son, who has returned from a civilian job with Canadian Forces in Afghanistan with some problems. The book is shortlisted for the 2006 Governor General's Award for Fiction, which will be awarded tomorrow (Nov. 21)

There's an entertaining interview (in audio) with Trevor Cole on the Bookninja blog.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Michael Redhill reads tonight at Audrey’s Books [7:30pm].

Kathy Kerr, in her review in the Edmonton Journal said:

"Consolation is a novel of Toronto. And at some point it may be deemed THE novel of Toronto. The city's history, geography and complex character are the heart and mind of Consolation, an accomplished followup to the success of Michael Redhill's first novel Martin Sloane. It's not a particularly complimentary portrait of a city, but it is a vital and fascinating one." [Sept. 17, 2006]
Many people really liked Redhill's last novel, Martin Sloane. It won several awards and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. Noah Richler particularly liked it:
“I read a superb novel yesterday, the kind that makes you lousy company for hours afterwards — because you want to mull over its details rather than be social, because you prefer its world to the one that, at dinner, you suddenly find yourself contending with. The novel is Martin Sloane…[I]f you care about voice, if you want to read a good novel more than about its author, then you’ll want to read this book…The work that resulted from all [Redhill’s] toil fills me with respect. This is an adult book — one that shows the maturity of proper incubation. It is accomplished, considered, polished — a novel of depth and many aspects. Martin Sloane makes you realize just how thin and fleeting most of what passes for good fiction is. Bravo, then, to Michael Redhill, the man who waited — and who set his own high standards.” —Noah Richler, National Post

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Upside of Down

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization is the latest feel-good book from Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political science professor at the U of T. His last cheery tale, The Ingenuity Gap, won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction in 2001. He has a website for the book here:

I kid. Both books are interesting, even compelling, reading but they are not laugh riots, as Harold Heft noted in his review of The Ingenuity Gap in 2000:

“There's good news and there's bad news, and Thomas Homer-Dixon … is going to give us the bad news first. To be exact, Homer-Dixon provides nearly 400 pages of bad news before the payoff, 10 or so pages of pale, qualified hope.”
In The Ingenuity Gap Homer-Dixon was a doomsayer ("Dr. Doom" they call him) pointing out that global systems have become too complex, that there is a growing gap between the problems with our world and the human ingenuity required to solve them, and there is little we can do about it.

We're still doomed in Homer-Dixon's new book. In it he talks of five "tectonic stresses" (population, energy, enviroment, climate and economic) that could each cause societal breakdown. But we're headed toward a "syncronous failure", when these stresses work in tandem, and, well, there's no hope when this happens.

The Globe & Mail had a lengthy and generally positive review of The Upside of Down on the weekend, as did the Toronto Star recently.

Readers of similar recent books like Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress or Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead will find further ammunition for the endless pub argument: are things getting better or worse in the world?

It is interesting how many of these catastrophists are Canadian - must be the long winters. I'm a born optimist, so enjoy these books as a needed tonic to temper my deeply uncool belief that things will all work out.

Homer-Dixon is on a book tour promoting his new book. If you get a chance to see him you should as he is an engaging speaker. He was in Calgary today and appeared on the CBC Radio phone-in show, Wild Rose Country. Tomorrow night (Tuesday Nov. 14) he reads at an event in Edmonton: 7:00pm at the U of A's Engineering Teaching and Learning Complex (Building 23 - ETLC), Room E2-002. All welcome - even wide-eyed optimists!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Very Long Engagement

One of the rights and freedoms our armed forces have defended for us is the freedom to disagree with our government, to criticize our politicians or public servants – including government’s component parts – like the armed forces. In times of war this freedom is put to the test – “Don’t you support the troops?” – but it remains a hallmark of democracy.

The governments of yesteryear didn't have to contend with the questioning populace of today, or perhaps it was easier to ignore the occasional voices of dissent. But today it is pretty clear where the politicians of the past went astray. Now current governments are asked to try and right the wrongs of the governments of yesteryear. Just a few days ago the British government officially pardoned 306 Commonwealth soldiers executed for “desertion” during the First World War. This includes Private Elsworth Edward Young and 22 other Canadians executed during the war. With today’s knowledge of shell shock and post traumatic stress disorder it is clear that many, if not all, of these men were innocent. And if one agrees that World War One was essentially an act of mass insanity, then the 306 deserters were actually the sane ones. [This idea runs through Timothy Findley’s classic WW1 novel, The Wars]

But the army mindset dies hard. Cliff Chadderton, Chairman of the National Council of Veteran Associations, thinks the pardons are a bad idea. He was quoted in the Globe & Mail on this, saying, “Deserters were bad role models for other troops. How can you expect other troops to go on sacrificing their lives if they knew they could get out of it and then get a pardon?” He issued a news release reiterating his position, noting that many veterans and historians agree with his tough guy stance, including noted historian Desmond Morton who apparently called the belated pardon idea “self-indulgent rubbish.”

These comments are surprising to me, as it doesn’t take too much reading about the Great War to realize what an abomination, what a stain on humanity that obscene waste of human life was. Sure, we can’t right the wrongs of long ago, but a little bit of reconciliation is a good thing.

My Gazette Great Reading picks this week centred on wartime executions, one fiction, one non-fiction:

A Very Long Engagement By Sébastien Japrisot
This marvellous novel begins in 1917 with five French soldiers punished for desertion by being forced into no-man’s land, to be killed by German cross fire. But two years after the war, the fiancé of one of the men suspects her fiancé may still be alive, and she begins a quest to discover the truth. Made into a good film [Metacritic score of 76] in 2004 by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, starring the star of Amelie, Audrey Tautou. Jeunet also directed Amelie, Delicatessen and is currently in pre-production for the film version of Life of Pi, due in 2008.

A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle By Andrew Clark
The sad story of the last soldier to be executed, likely wrongfully, by the Canadian military. Nominated for the 2003 Governor-General's Award, this intriguing book powerfully conveys the awfulness and absurdity of war.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Bed of Red Flowers

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day of course, and sadly, Canadians don’t have to think too hard to “remember” the sacrifices of wars past, as the news from Afghanistan is a constant reminder of the terrible cost of war. The conflict in Afghanistan is complex and confusing - one can only imagine the difficulties our troops have in understanding the situation on the ground.

There have been a number of recent books published on Afghanistan recently, all by women. The most prominent of these was A Bed of Red Flowers: In Search of My Afghanistan (2005) by Nelofer Pazira. The star of and inspiration for the film, Kandahar, Pazira tells the story of her life - from childhood in a wealthy Kabul family, to the horror of war and occupation, to her escape to Canada and her return to Afghanistan under the Taliban. “Written movingly, honestly and lyrically, it is the story of Afghanistan itself", wrote Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

The Punishment of Virtue: inside Afghanistan after the Taliban (2006) by Sarah Chayes
Frustrated with her bystander role as a journalist, Chayes became a field director for an Afghan NGO, Afghans for Civil Society. ACS's reconstruction work brought Chayes into conflict with the infamous Afghan warlords, including Kandahar’s corrupt warlord-governor. Her journalist skills and her hands-on experience make for an excellent explanation of the current situation.

Kabul in Winter : life without peace in Afghanistan (2006) by Ann Jones.
Jones, a veteran writer (Women Who Kill), tells of her post 9-11 experiences as an NGO worker in Kabul. She tours Kabul's streets, homes, schools and a women's prison, focusing on Afghan women many of whom whose lives have an undercurrent of violence.

I is for Infidel : from Holy War to Holy Terror in Afghanistan (2005) by Kathy Gannon.
Gannon is veteran American journalist (AP correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan 1986-2005) with years of experience in Afghanistan. She has met and debated with many of the key figures in the conflict, whether Taliban, mujahadeen or extremist Pakistani. An excellent overview of the roots of the current situation, albeit a depressing one given the opportunities missed.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Perfect Thing

With apologies to the Beatles,

It was five years ago today,
Steve Jobs taught the world to play
It raised the bar in style,
Guaranteed to raise a smile.
So may I introduce to you
The thing you've known all these years,
Apple corp's lovely, lovely iPod.

Yes, the iPod hit the stores November 10, 2001, with cultural reverberations that approach another event a couple of months before. Stephen Levy, an Apple enthusiast to say the least, chronicles the story of the iPod in his intriguing new book, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness. Farhad Manjoo reviewed Levy's book in an excellent piece in - iPod: I love you, you're perfect, now change.

The Edmonton Journal's music writer, Sandra Sperounes, had a piece about iPod's 5th birthday in the paper yesterday - The iPod at 5: Ubiquitous mobile device changed the music world. She has some great quotes on the iPod from musicians like Gord Downie and Frank Black, as well as local musician Ross Moroz:

"Could iPods and iTunes spell the death of the album, as we know it, in the years to come? Ross Moroz, a local journalist and musician, thinks so.

"The concept of an album is now completely abstract," he writes in an e-mail. "In a music environment where an artist can release as few or as many tracks as they like at any given time, with the full knowledge that the tracks will probably be listened to out of order, mixed into a playlist with other tracks or shuffled at random, the instinct to release a cohesive, linear album is probably waning."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Searching for Bobby Orr

Stephen Brunt, Globe and Mail sports columnist and author, spoke to Peter Brown on CBC’s Radio Active yesterday about his excellent new book, Searching for Bobby Orr. There is almost an entire shelf of Gretzky books at the Library, but only 1 or 2 on Orr. But, frankly, Wayne’s story isn’t really all that interesting. Orr, on the other hand, is a tragic Canadian hero, flying close to the sun (as in the classic photograph following his Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1970). Then brought low by injured knees and betrayed by his friend Alan Eagleson. And unlike Wayne’s ubiquitous smiling presence, Orr post-hockey was a private, angry man, whose sons not only didn’t play hockey, they never even learned to skate. Now there’s a story.

Ian McGillis, the ex-Edmontonian author of the hilarious novel, A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry, wrote a great review of Brunt’s book in the Edmonton Journal recently:
"Bobby Orr used to make me cry.

Eight years old, sitting with my father watching the Boston Bruins playing on TV against my beloved Maple Leafs (this was before the Oilers, you understand), I was choked with rage and frustration as that shaggy-maned defenceman, with one solitary strip of tape on his stick blade, ragged the puck end-to-end for the duration of a Leafs power play.

"Why do they let him do that?" I would blubber.

"They're not letting him do it," Dad would say. "He does what he wants out there."

Very early, then, Bobby Orr provided a hard lesson: in hockey, as in life, some are simply better than others. Not long after, as his career was cruelly truncated by fragile knees, he provided another lesson, this one harder to absorb: Just as greatness is bestowed randomly, it can be randomly snatched away.

... Searching for Bobby Orr [is] not only one of the best hockey books ever, but a book that transcends hockey."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

De Niro's Game

I hope you got your pick in for the Library’s “Guess the Giller” contest, organized by the good folks at the Giller Prize organization. (sorry, that's "Scotiabank Giller Prize" now. Sigh.) The contest closed at midnight on Monday. There will be two winners from St. Albert, with each winner getting a copy of all the five nominated books. We were pleased that the Gillerians allowed a mid-sized public Library to participate this year.

The winner will be announced at the Giller Prize ceremony in Toronto tonight. Locally it is televised on CTV at 8pm, with Justin Trudeau hosting. If you haven’t been paying attention, the Toronto Star provides a handy summary:

A bluffer's guide to Giller nominees:

De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage
First line: "Ten thousand bombs had landed, and I was waiting for George."
Our reviewer wrote: "De Niro's Game is a feverish nightmare of a book, written with a distinctly European flair. True to the existential tradition, it stubbornly refuses to offer the reader any easy comfort."

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam
First line: "Desperate stragglers arrived late for the molecular biology final examination, their feet wet from tramping through snow banks and their faces damp from running."
Our reviewer wrote: "Lam creates vivid characters and circumstances that satiate our morbid curiosity about medicine, from med school corpse dissection to gruesome complications on the maternity ward."

The Immaculate Conception by Gaétan Soucy, translated by Lazer Lederhendler
First line: "I was there myself."
Our reviewer wrote: "The atmosphere in which these characters breathe is, if not Gothic in the mode of Poe, then certainly grotesque and repulsive.... The world of the novel was simply not a world I could believe in."

The Perfect Circle by Pascale Quiviger, translated by Sheila Fischman
First line: "If you watch my hand move through space, you will realize that it's trying to find you."
Our reviewer wrote: "This is a story about madness.... Madness, even the madness of love, is inherently boring, inherently prone to excess rhetoric."

Home Schooling by Carol Windley
First line: "That summer a boy went missing from a field known as the old potato farm, although no one could remember anything growing there but wild meadow barley, thistles in their multitudes, black lilies with a stink of rotten meat if you brought your face too close or tried to pick them."
Our reviewer wrote: "Rooted in the wet green landscape of the Pacific Northwest ... each story is overloaded with irrelevant incidents, perspectives, voices."

I picked De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage, as have many I think. I don’t agree with the jury’s decision to pick two translated books. There are prizes such as the Governor General’s Awards for translations after all, and the Soucy novel won the GG award for Best Fiction in French in 1994! And, as with many fellow library patrons, I’m afraid I’m not a fan of short story collections, which knocks out the other two books.

I was cheering for local favourite Todd Babiak and his novel, The Garneau Block, which made it to the Giller longlist but ended its triumphant advance there. Todd was pleased as making the longlist meant that Alice Munro had read his book! Munro as well as writer Michael Winter and deposed Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson are this year's Giller jury.

Have I read any of the shortlist? Heck no! I promise I will read the winner however. I have a friend, an academic, who prides himself on reading all the titles. Good for him. (I rolled my eyes just now…)

* Update Nov. 8 - I turned on the television at 10 to 9 to hear Justin Trudeau say "If you're just tuning in now you picked the perfect time as we are about to announce the winner." Thanks Justin! Moments later the winner was indeed announced - Vincent Lam for his book Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures. A surprise win I suppose, but the Giller has been making a point it seems of not picking the front-runner.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Red, White and Drunk All Over

Natalie MacLean has quickly become one of Canada's best-known food and wine writers. Her e-newsletter Nat Decants has thousands of subscribers, and it was named one of North America’s best food and wine newsletters at the 2005 James Beard Awards.

Hailing from decidedly non-wine country, Cape Breton, MacLean has a great, non-stodgy approach to wine and writing about wine, as her new book’s title – Red, White, and Drunk All Over clearly shows.

The book is less a “here’s what wine you drink with turkey” guide than a journey through the world of wine, in the spirit of books like Peter Mayle’s A Good Year or Rex Pickett’s Sideways. It begins with her wine epiphany moment with burgundy and ends with dinner with novelist and wine writer Jay McInerney.

MacInerney has his own wine book just out, a non-fiction collection of wine writing called A Hedonist in the Cellar. It was the Edmonton Journal's "Sunday Pick" yesterday, with Richard Helm writing:

"Jay McInerney brings a novelist's voice to wine writing, one that's matured in interesting fashion since his 1984 bestseller, Bright Lights, Big City. When he's not writing novels, McInerney serves as wine columnist for House & Garden magazine.

When it comes to wine, McInerney knows his stuff but he also knows how to write in entertaining fashion. He once offered this advice for telling a Burgundy from a Bordeaux: "If it's red, French, costs too much, and tastes like the water that's left in the vase after the flowers have died, it's probably Burgundy."

A Hedonist in the Cellar serves as a great guide, no matter how sophisticated your palate, to what's reliable and new in a world of endless variety. If you've ever been to Oregon and sampled a native Pinot Gris and wondered at its heritage, McInerney has the goods."

If you are an Oregon wine fan, you should pick up The Grail: a year ambling and shambling through an Oregon vineyard in pursuit of the best pinot noir wine in the whole wild world by Brian Doyle. Publisher’s Weekly had nice things to say about it:

"Take the red hills of Oregon's Willamette Valley, a father-son winemaking outfit and one madcap wordsmith on a quest for the world's finest pinot noir. Let them ferment, and you've got a charming look inside the operations at Don and Jesse Lange's winery. … Perfect for wine aficionados and word lovers, this is a full-bodied, ebullient account."
* Update Nov. 7: John Allemang reviews MacInerney's book today in his Book-A-Day column in the Globe and Mail ($). Allemang is much less a fan of the book than Richard Helm in the Edmonton Journal, implying that the writing is pretentious and the wines discussed out of the reach of most readers.
"Jay McInerney is what even wine geeks must acknowledge as a real writer. When the overpriced bottles are emptied, he doesn't just scratch down a 90+ rating and attach a few lush descriptors like "rose-petal" or "eucalyptus." No, for the high-life Manhattan novelist and globetrotting House & Garden wine columnist, the literary aspirations are far, far classier."

Friday, November 03, 2006

Lisey's Story

Stephen King's new novel, Lisey's Story, is featured in Powell's Review-A-Day today. I have to admit, I do recognize myself in Ron Charles' review, from the Washington Post Book World:
"Admit it: You've been a horrible snob about Stephen King. You've rolled your eyes at passengers on the Metro reading Pet Sematary. You've told your son to put down Salem's Lot and get a real book. When King won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, you gleefully quoted Harold Bloom's crack about this new "low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life."

Well, suck it up. Even that faint praise about how you can appreciate him for being good at "what he does" isn't going to cut it anymore. With Lisey's Story, King has crashed the exclusive party of literary fiction, and he'll be no easier to ignore than Carrie at the prom. His new novel is an audacious meditation on the creative process and a remarkable intersection of the different strains of his talent: the sensitivity of his autobiographical essays, the insight of his critical commentary, the suspense of his short stories and the psychological terror of his novels. (And yes, a few hairy monsters.) They're all evoked here in this moving story about the widow of a famous writer trying to lay her grief to rest."
I don't think I've read anything by King since thumbing through one of his short story collections in, what, elementary school? And the great films people have made from his books (The Shining, Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Misery) just confirm my opinion, as don't pulp books make the best films? The Godfather is the prime example of this: so-so source material spun into cinematic gold.

But in my defence, his books just aren't my thing. I would never diss someone for reading his books. And he is great at "what he does." Many of the pretentious literary folk I enjoy reading could learn something about crafting a strong narrative from King (or, ahem, so I'm told.)

The danger in a book like Lisey's Story of course is King getting out of what he does well. However, there are a number of very positive reviews out there already, so apparently King can do it all.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Sophie's Choice

Novelist William Styron died yesterday at the age of 81. He was one of the grand old men of American lit, the post-WWII lions like Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal and Saul Bellow. The New York Times has an obituary by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, with links to original reviews of his books.

[Update Nov. 3 - The NY Times book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, has "An Appreciation" of Styron in today's paper.]

Sophie’s Choice (1976) is Styron’s best-known book, thanks to the 1982 film version starring Meryl Streep and her much-satirized Polish accent. But it may also be his best book too, winning an American Book Award and being chosen as one of the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. Picking the book from the shelf today, it has the look of a mid-seventies potboiler a la Harold Robbins, frilly font and all. And it is a massive tome, over 500 pages, matching that decade's excess! But unlike much of the fiction of the era Styron wrote about Big Ideas - slavery in The Confessions of Nat Turner (1969) and the Holocaust in Sophie's Choice.

If you want a good read you can sink your teeth into, with a fairly traditional structure (ie. naive outsider tells tragic story as in The Great Gatsby), you haven't seen the film and thus have no idea what Sophie's terrible choice is, then give it a try.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Girls; Chang and Eng

Margaret Wente, the Globe and Mail columnist, is extremely aggravating. She’s a key reason the paper ends up on the floor in my house, having been thrown across the room in response to her latest outrage. But sometimes she is absolutely bang-on. Her column yesterday, “Twin sides of the coin”, was one of those times. I’ve been puzzled about the media’s universally positive coverage of the birth of conjoined twins to a woman in BC. As Wente noted,

    “This unusual event was treated as a “good news” story all around. The babies were born healthy. Their mother was elated. The doctors and everyone at the hospital were ecstatic. News stories portrayed the infants as completely normal – except for the minor matter that they share a brain. Nobody dared to ask whether it would have been better for them not to have been born at all.”

Exactly! The story made me sad – it sent a chill up my spine. Personally, it reminds me of the cold randomness of the world. Today in the Globe there are three letters which agree wholeheartedly with Wente’s piece.

In my weekly picks appearing in the St. Albert Gazette in today’s issue, I chose two recent books that focus on the topic of conjoined twins. Here’s the blurb for both:

The Girls
By Lori Lansens

A moving but unsentimental novel about Rose and Ruby, “the girls”, conjoined twins growing up in small-town Ontario. Approaching their 30th birthday, Rose decides to write her autobiography, and suggests Ruby do the same. Through the alternating chapters, the novel reveals both the twins’ longing for independence and togetherness.

Chang and Eng
By Darin Strauss

A brilliant fictional imaging of the amazing true story of the conjoined twin brothers, Chang and Eng, from whom the term “Siamese twins” came. Born in poverty in 1811 on a houseboat on the Mekong River, the brothers eventually married two sisters from North Carolina, fathered 21 children, and lived for more than six decades together.

Margaret Wente published a book in 2004, mainly a collection of her Globe columns, called An Accidental Canadian: Reflections on my home and (not) native land. It includes many of my least favourite columns, such as her paen to her beloved SUV, but one can't deny she is an interesting writer.

Moral Disorder

Margaret Atwood was scheduled to appear on The Charlie Rose Show on PBS tonight, talking about her new book Moral Disorder. But schedules only mention the appearance of Howard Dean, the former US presidential nominee candidate. Sounds like some channel-flipping will be called for by Peg fans. The Charlie Rose Show airs locally on cable 24 (PBS Detroit) at 10:30pm or cable 22 (PBS Spokane) at midnight.