Friday, October 31, 2008

A Good and Happy Child

Halloween and no Sarah Palin sightings at the Library as yet. One excellent Amy Winehouse back in the technical services department. Lots of scary books available however, and I don't mean David Frum's hagiography of George W. Bush (The Right Man...). This summer I read what you might call a 'literary horror' novel, A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans. The cover caught my eye in a bookstore on Vancouver Island and the fabulous back cover blurbs brought me to the cash register. This first novel really does pull the reader into the story quickly. George Davies can't bear to touch his own newborn baby son. Forced to see a therapist, George recounts the bizarre events of his childhood. After his father's mysterious death, precocious and lonely George is visited by a frightening apparition that he comes to call "his Friend." George's family and friends aren't sure if he needs an exorcist or an asylum. The novel is more creepy and atmospheric than outright scary, but fans of The Exoricist will probably enjoy this book. The depictions of George's nightmares and the "void" (Hell?) are particularly effective. Evans crams a lot of religious history in, usually discretely, but occasionally it jars. But in all a fine Halloween read.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Judgment of Paris

The Friends of the Library began their 5th season of the Reel Monday film series last night. They choose from films that played the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. The season proper begins in January, but they've added two films this fall. When Did You Last See Your Father? will be shown on November 24th, while Bottle Shock was shown last night.
Bottle Shock is the fictionalized story of the infamous "Judgment of Paris" wine tasting in 1976, where California wines from Napa Valley bested storied French wines in a blind tasting. This incident was the tipping point for New World wines, with the wine world realizing that France did not hold a monopoly on good wine. The US victory would have been a nothing event except that George Taber, a US journalist, happened to be at the tasting. Taber wrote a two paragraph article for Time Magazine and soon enough the event had become mythic and epic.

Taber published a full-length book on the tasting in 2005: Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. The book describes the tasting of course, but also situates it in the context of the times - what was happening in California leading up to the event in particular. The importance of Robert Mondavi is mentioned (pick up The House of Mondavi for a full-length look, also on CD audiobook). Mondavi wrote the foreword for the book. But Taber also writes about the winemakers who made the victorious wines: Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich. Winiarski owned Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, whose 1973 cabernet sauvignon was the top red wine. Grgich was the winemaker for Chateau Montelena, whose 1973 chardonnay was the top white wine.

The effects of the Paris tasting are shown in the growth of wineries all over the globe. And back in California too - in 2007 Stag's Leap was sold to a Washington State winery for $186 million, while Chateau Montelena was sold, ironically, to a French winery for an "undisclosed sum". Mike Grgich left Chateau Montelena soon after the tasting and started his own winery, Grgich Hills Estate, where he continues to make the world's best chardonnays.

The film, Bottle Shock has has pretty good reviews, some good, some not so much. It is definitely worth a watch for wine buffs. Besides Sideways and the documentary Mondovino, there isn't a whole bunch of great wine films out there. George Taber and the Brit wine shop owner who organized the tasting, Steve Spurrier have spoken out against factual liberties taken in Bottle Shock. In particular they note that the Mike Grgich is not mentioned in the film. Both Taber and Spurrier are involved in the production of a rival film based on the event.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Good to a Fault

The most painful phrase for a librarian to ever have to utter is: "I don't know." Librarians, or this one anyway, like to think they know a little bit about everything. Even a short spell working at a busy reference desk will school you in all sorts of interesting things (and things you really didn't need to know as well). But in the case of Giller nominee Marina Endicott I'm forced to say: "I didn't know." I didn't know Endicott is an Albertan. I didn't know her excellent second novel is published by a new Alberta literary publisher, Freehand Books. I didn't know Endicott was reading at Audrey's just last week. And worst of all for a lifetime Globe & Mail reader, I missed the Saturday September 20th Globe Books section and didn't know T. F. Rigelhof gave Good to a Fault a rave review:

'''Thinking about herself and the state of her soul, Clara Purdy drove to the bank one hot Friday in July. The other car came from nowhere, speeding through on the yellow, going so fast it was almost safely past when Clara's car caught it. She was pushing on the brake, a ballet move, graceful - pulling back on the wheel with both arms as she rose, her foot standing on the brake - and then a terrible crash, a painful extended rending sound, when the metals met.'

So begins Marina Endicott's Good to a Fault. Does any reader need more encouragement than this to pick up a copy of this superior novel .. and read it to find out what happens next?

... Marina Endicott is really funny, a sweet-natured but sharp-eyed and quick-tongued social observer in the Jane Austen-Barbara Pym-Anne Tyler tradition, who can wring love, revulsion and hilarity from readers in a single page.

... She's worked as an actor, director and dramaturge, and written three plays, and all of this stage experience pays off in writing that is exceptionally tight and compelling. Good to a Fault has the same kind of relentless, unstoppable expectancy as Barbara Gowdy's Helpless, so it's not surprising that this novel is earning accolades from writers such as Elizabeth Hay, Lyn Coady and Annabel Lyon.

... Freehand Books is a new and national publisher of literary works that's decided to establish itself in Calgary rather than Toronto. Endicott's Good to a Fault is one of four books being published simultaneously in its inaugural season. Another, Saleema Nawaz's story collection Mother Superior, gives it a formidable one-two punch on this season's Must Read fiction list."

Fortunately someone at the Library knew about Endicott, for we've had a copy circulating since September. In Alberta, only Lethbridge and Jasper public libraries can match us on that (Calgary and Edmonton public libraries have many copies on order). I note that the University of Alberta - for which institution Endicott teaches creative writing - has zero copies on order. Ahem. [Anyone can do this all-Alberta check by the way. Search most Alberta libraries' catalogues all at once at the TAL Online site here. Sometimes you need to double check at the U of A library site as well, here.]

Read more about Marina in the Edmonton Journal today. Interesting factoids: her husband is a Mountie whose first posting was in Meyerthorpe (1992-97).

And thank you to the commenters in my last blog post for letting me know the error of my ways!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Giller 2008

The 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist is out. Of course, the Gillers are playing second fiddle to the Hockey Night in Canada "hockey anthem challenge" right now. But after you have voted for Colin Oberst's "Canadian Gold" (a great tune and Colin is an Edmontonian!) you can turn your attention to the Guess the Giller contest, which St. Albert Public Library is participating in again this year.
The Giller winner will be announced on November 11th at one of those "rich galas" that Stephen Harper was so steamed about earlier in the federal election campaign. But Mr. Harper need not fret about the Gillers, given that they were founded and funded by private funds (Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch) and are now supported by Scotiabank. (I hope Scotiabank can still scrape up the money for the prize given the financial chaos of the moment!). But then again, the Giller jury this year may give Mr. Harper fits: an openly gay Irish novelist, Colm Tóibín, the fierce and vocal critic of Harper's comments and actions on the arts, Margaret Atwood and archnemesis, former NDP Premier of Ontario, current Liberal candidate in Toronto-Centre and most recently the exposer of Mr. Harper's 2003 plagiarized speech: Bob Rae. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Mr. Harper will not be attending this 'rich gala'!
Personally, I think the jury's Toronto-centrism (Atwood and Rae at least) may have skewed their choices away from the west (note: I say this every year). Missing from the longlist this year was Winnipeger Miriam Toews The Flying Troutmans, Victorian Bill Gaston's The Order of Good Cheer and Calgarian Fred Stenson's The Great Karoo. Making the longlist but not the shortlist was Victorian Patrick Lane's Red Dog, Red Dog and Vancouverite Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo. The Galloway omisson is a surprise, given the positive buzz around it.

Regardless, here are the five nominated books (all novels except for Barnacle Love, a short story collection), with annotations from the Giller folks:

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden
"A novel of contemporary aboriginal life, full of the dangers and harsh beauty of both forest and city. When beautiful Suzanne Bird disappears, her sister Annie, a loner and hunter, is compelled to search for her, leaving behind their uncle Will, a man haunted by loss. While Annie travels from Toronto to New York, from modelling studios to A-list parties, Will encounters dire troubels at home. Both eventually come to painful discoveries about the inescapable ties of family."

Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa
"In stories brimming with life, the innocent dreams and bitter disappointments with immigrant experience are captured. A young fisherman washes up nearly dead on the shores of Newfoundland. It is Manuel Rebelo who has tried to escape the suffocating smallness of his Portuguese village and the crushing weight of his mother's expectations to build a future for himself in a terra nova. Manuel's son, Antonio, is born into Toronto's little Portugal, a world of colourful houses and labyrinthine back alleys. In the Rebelo home the Church looms large, men and women inhabit sharply divided space, pigs are slaughtered in the garage, and a family lives in the shadow cast by a father's failures."

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott
"Absorbed in her own failings, Clara Purdy crashes her life into a sharp left turn, taking the young family in the other car along with her. When bruises on the mother, Lorraine, prove to be late-stage cancer, Clara - against all habit and comfort - moves the three children and their terrible grandmother into her own house. In Good to a Fault, Clara decides to give it a try, and then has to cope with the consequences: exhaustion, fury, hilarity, and unexpected love. But she must question her own motives. Is she acting out of true goodness, or out of guilt?"

Cockroach by Rawi Hage
"During a bitterly cold winter in Montreal's restless immigrant community, a self-described thief has tried but failed to commit suicide by hanging himself from a tree in a local park. Rescued against his will, the narrator is obliged to attend sessions with a well-intentioned but naive therapist. This sets the story in motion, leading us back to the narrator's violent childhood in a war-torn country, forward into his current life in the smoky emigre cafes where everyone has a tale, and out into the frozen night streets of Montreal, where the thief survives on the edge, imagining himself to be a cockroach invading the lives of the privleged, but wilfully blind, citizens who surround him."

The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan
"Newly arrived to the countryside, William Heath, his wife, and two daughters appear the picture of a devoted family. But when accusations of embezzlement spur William to commit an unthinkable crime, those who witnessed this affectionate, attentive father go about his routine of work and family must reconcile action with character. A doctor who has cared for one daughter, encouraging her trust, examines the finer details of his brief interactions with William, searching for clues that might penetrate the mystery of his motivation. Meanwhile the other daughter's teacher grapple with guilt over a moment when fate wove her into a succession of events that will haunt her dreams."