Friday, October 30, 2009

Ten Great Reads for Fall

Ten Great Reads for Fall

Pete's Picks presented at the STARTA (St. Albert Retired Teachers Association) breakfast meeting on October 30th. Thank you to hosts Brenda Kane and Jack Flaherty!

Two English ghost stories for Halloween:

Sarah Waters The Little Stranger

Waters is the critically-acclaimed author of neo-Victorian novels like Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. She moved forward in time with her last novel, The Night Watch to the Second World War. Now she looks at the grey world of postwar Britain. with her excellent take on the classic English haunted house story. A doctor is called to a decaying family manor in England to treat a young man’s war injury, but an evil presence in the house soon makes itself known. Some resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House with a little Edgar Allan Poe too. Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize.

Audrey Niffenegger Her Fearful Symmetry

The long-awaited new novel from the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife is a bit of a ghost story, set beside London’s famed Highgate Cemetery. Moving into a London flat they inherited from their aunt Elspeth, Chicago identical twins Valentina and Julia find aunt Elspeth still hanging about as a meddling ghost. Like The Time Traveler’s Wife at its heart this is a romance, albeit an odd one.

A crime novel, for grey, grim November:

Stieg Larsson The Girl Who Played with Fire

Scandinavian crime fiction is hot. Kenneth Branaugh brought Henning Mankell's Wallander books to BBC/PBS recently. Swede Stieg Larsson’s first thriller, The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, was a critical and a popular success all over the world. Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist are back, this time in the thick of the action, with Salander accused of the murder of two journalists about to expose a trafficking business. Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004 just after delivering the manuscripts for three of these novels, so it is doubly sad finishing these books.

A war novel for Remembrance Day:

Hans Fallada Every Man Dies Alone

Like the Larsson book, this is a posthumous novel, but only in that this is the first time it has been published in English, over 60 years after its initial publication in German. It was actually written in Germany during the Second World War and published – and was a bestseller – in German in 1947. But no English language publisher saw fit to publish until now. An excellent but sad book, about a couple who try to defy the Nazis in their own small way.

An up and comer:

Dan Chaon Await Your Reply

Chaon is an American whose first novel, You Remind Me of Me, was excellent. This new one might be even better. Chaon starts with seemingly unrelated characters and slowly brings them together. This technique reminds me a bit of Kate Atkinson and her tightly-wound plots. Here Chaon deftly juggles three intriguing plots about people dropping their old lives and remaking themselves. Ryan drops out of college to live in the woods, Lucy runs off with her high school teacher and Miles searches for his elusive twin brother. Chaon brings the three together.

Local Hero:

Thomas Trofimuk Waiting for Columbus

The Edmonton writer had two novels on the scoreboard, one an Alberta novel of the year, and then he stepped up to the plate and hit this third one out of the park. This is a great read, a combination of a strong, compelling story with interesting characters and beautiful writing. A modern-day man is admitted to a Spanish mental hospital convinced he is Christopher Columbus. But who is he really?

Oh those Tudors!

Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall

He's been dead five centuries, but Henry VIII is a having a moment, with The Tudors on TV, Pope Benedict inviting Anglicans to leave Henry's church and now this superb Tudor-era novel winning the Booker Prize. Mantel focuses on the turbulent years of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, telling the story through the eyes of his crafty advisor, Thomas Cromwell. A long read but worth it.

Three non-fiction tales:

Stephen Brunt Gretzky’s Tears: Hockey, Canada and the Day Everything Changed

Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt stopped by the Library last fall for a reading. He tantalized us with talk of his next book which would focus on the Wayne Gretzky trade. And now here is the book: Gretzky’s Tears - a must-read for Oilers and Gretzky fans and anyone interested in a brilliant look at how our game changed after “The Trade”. Brunt is not only one of Canada’s best sports writers, he’s one of the best writers period.

David Grann The Lost City of Z

A true story of classic adventure in the jungles of the Amazon with this true story of classic adventure. In 1925 British explorer Percy Fawcett entered the Amazon jungle in search of an ancient civilization and was never seen again. Grann intersperses the story of Fawcett with his own search for the truth. Intriguing.

Greg Grandin Fordlandia

The cliché is true: truth is stranger than fiction. The intriguing true story of iconic businessman Henry Ford’s quixotic attempt to build a utopia in Brazil’s Amazonian jungle. From the 1920s through 1945 Ford tried to remake the rainforest into an outpost of white picket fence America with a rubber plantation as its heart.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Waiting for Columbus

Thomas Trofimuk popped into the Library last night for a reading and a chat about his great new novel, Waiting for Columbus. Thomas is a critically-acclaimed Edmonton writer with two well-received novels to his name. His 2002 debut novel, The 52nd Poem, won the Writers' Guild of Alberta's Georges Bugnet Award for Alberta Novel of the Year as well as the Edmonton Book Prize. His second novel, from 2006, Doubting Yourself to the Bone, was a Globe & Mail 100 pick. He is also an accomplished poet, one of the founders of the Raving Poets collective.

And of course, being a successful poet and novelist in Alberta means Thomas also has a full-time day job - working in the salt mines of the Provincial government (No, not literally - I'm pretty sure the government has no salt mines. Thomas works as a Business Analyst for Municipal Affairs). But with his new Columbus book Thomas has turned the dial on his writing career up to 11. The book had big buzz before publication and a major American publisher paid him a sizable advance. Foreign rights have been sold in various countries.

What created the buzz was a great story really. Around the library we call them "good reads" - those special books that find the sweet spot between the serious literary work and the popular thriller with the strong narrative that pulls you through. At the reading Thomas noted that with this book he really tried to focus on the story. Clearly he was successful as this is a very readable book with the beautiful language and memorable characters of capital "L" literature.

The seed of Columbus had been knocking about Trofimuk's mind for 15 years until recently when he had an epiphany and figured out how to write the story. He pulled off the road (I think he said the Whitemud freeway?), phoned his wife and asked her to copy down his ideas on how he would write the book.

The book is a mistaken identity tale which begins with a modern-day man being admitted to a mental hospital in Seville, Spain. The man is convinced he is Christopher Columbus. He tells his story to Consuela, a sympathetic nurse, and we soon see problems with his story (he has a cell phone for example). Meanwhile there is a parallel story of a detective searching for someone in Spain. Momentum builds as we learn who Columbus really is. In the meantime we're treated to a fun character, for Columbus is quite the rogue, with a fondness for women and winer.

The Library has another Columbus-related novel: Codex 632 by José Rodrigues dos Santos. This thriller is a late entry in the "it's like The Da Vinci Code" sweepstakes, for it has a Robert Langdon-ish historian hot on the trail of a improbable conspiracy involving the true identity of Christopher Columbus. Like The Da Vinci Code, the novel quickly jumps from New York to Jerusalem to Brazil, using clues from Kabbalah and the Templars. But unlike The Da Vinci Code the author seems to want to get EVERYTHING he knows about Columbus onto the page, leaving the various plots gasping for air.

Reading Trofimuk's Waiting for Columbus I was reminded of George Bowering's postmodern Canadian classic novel, Burning Water. The Library's copy is long-gone, so I was happy to see that Vancouver's New Star books brought it back into print. This really is an underrated book. It did win the 1980 Governor General's Award for Fiction but no one seems to have heard of it when I mention it. Maybe it is because it doesn't fit the mold (any mold!) as it is a funny book. Check out the impassioned praise of the book by Jeff Foss in Books in Canada, where he calls it "one of the best Canadian books of the last 50 years or so".

Burning Water is a novel that re-imagines the 1792 voyage of Captain George Vancouver to the coast of British Columbia. He cheekily invents history, having Vancouver in a love affair with the Spanish explorer Don Juan Francisco la Bodega y Quadra. Have a read when the Library's new copy arrives!