Have just finished a second reading of Caught. I’ve read all of Lisa’s novels – Alligator, February, and Caught – twice, not because the plot and characters are so fascinating, which they are, but because the language is so beautiful, taut, and evocative. Even when you know exactly what will happen, you can be captivated by the writing alone. Although February is my personal favourite, I could easily read all three novels again, just to be swept away by Lisa’s style The characters and plot in Caught are gripping, but not unusual; it is the way in which the exquisite prose reveals characters and plot that is unique and provocative. Highly recommended.
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese was a finalist in 2013’s Canada Reads. Having worked for fourteen years on an Ojibway reserve in northern Wisconsin, I was fascinated by the novel’s opening chapters about the young Ojibway boy Saul Indian Horse and his grandmother in northern Ontario, their life in the bush, and their terror of the residential schools. The author skilfully depicts the horror of those schools – a dark and poisonous chapter in both Canadian and US history, with a tragic legacy that lives on today. I was less engrossed by the middle chapters. Too much hockey for me and, unlike the beginning and end of the novel, the middle chapters read like an autobiography – the tension wasn’t dramatized. And yet all in all, a satisfying read.
419 by Will Ferguson, winner of the 2012 Scotia Giller Prize, is worthy of the attention its getting. A gripping and suspenseful novel with a large cast of fascinating characters, 419 is beautifully and skilfully written. The threads of the plot and the characters are so disparate that the reader wonders how the author can possibly manage to bring them all together, but the writing is so good that the reader is confident that Ferguson will. In the hands of a lesser writer, the plot could seem contrived, but never does … just tragic in so many ways. Nearly everyone becomes a victim of self-delusion, from the Canadian man scammed by a 419er from Nigeria to the 419er himself. The characters themselves are wonderfully drawn, by turns sympathetic, frustrating, pathetic. We’re discussing this novel in our women’s book group in about a month and I’m looking forward to the discussion.
Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness by Jeff Warren is a fascinating and highly entertaining examination of how we experience consciousness. Although Warren’s quest for information and understanding about different brain states is absolutely serious — he travels the world to interview various researchers and meditators — he drops in plenty of humour along the way, as well as charming illustrations, figures, and tables of his own construction. Most of the humour is directed at himself for not “being good at” lucid dreaming, hypnosis, biofeedback, and meditation. The chapters I found most interesting were those on sleep, dreaming, and the hypnogogic state, that brief period between waking and sleeping that many artists, writers, and inventors cultivate for its creative insights. Also, EEGs of REM sleep and consciousness are strikingly similar, and some researchers suggest that “we are always dreaming”; it’s just that when we’re awake our thoughts are bounded and grounded by sensory input that is lacking when we’re asleep. I found this idea particularly provocative. All in all, a very good read.
On my return flight from Wisconsin, I watched OZ. What a disappointment! They’ve taken one of the very few stories we have that has a female heroine who is not on a quest for romance and turned it into a silly romantic story with a man at the centre. And not a very good story at that. All of the characters, even the secondary ones, are flat, one-dimensional, and uninteresting. A far cry from Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and Toto!
We Had It So Good by Linda Grant is a provocative and skilfully written novel about the Boomer generation in the US and UK. Those of us in that generation will find it especially riveting – and at times, embarrassingly nostalgic. Yes, we did think that … Yes, we did do that … But the narrative goes far beyond the Boomers into what was for me – and for the book group discussing the novel – its most interesting and provocative aspect: the exploration of just how little each generation knows about the generation before. Although we rarely confess it, we often secretly believe that we are far more interesting – and brighter – than our parents. We’re aghast when we discover that our own children believe the same thing. It’s only when we reach a certain age that we realize just how wrong we are. Highly recommended.
Have just returned from four weeks of travelling in the US – Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin – visiting family, friends, and colleagues. After a dreary winter, it was wonderful to see so much colour and green. While in Wisconsin, I met with my writers’ group, the Train Wreckers. They usually have to include me in their monthly meetings via Skype, so it was a great treat to be able to meet with them face-to-face in a wonderfully productive meeting. (They are critiquing my novel-in-progress chapter by chapter.) I also met with my Wisconsin book group – a fabulous group of women – to discuss We Had It So Good by Linda Grant (see “From the Nightstand”) and reconnected with wonderful friends on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation where I worked for fourteen years before moving to St. John’s. An exhausting but delightful trip. Not yet ready to get back to work.
Paradoxides by Don McKay. I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the most astute reader of poetry, but I’m trying to read more … because I think I’ve been missing something by not reading poetry. The poems in Paradoxides, with their focus on the natural and geological worlds, are richly rewarding. I love the energy and language of McKay’s poems, and they complement my own thoughts lately about humans having become entirely too anthropocentric: we’ve forgotten the world from which we come and that we’re only a recent arrival. One of my favourite lines is from “Song for the Song of the Sandhill Crane”: “Where/they call from hominids haven’t yet/happened. Garroo:/who can bear those star-river distances?” And who cannot love “Taking the Ferry”? “And that’s me, later,/lurching the deck, radar-gazing the waves/that blitz us out of darkness, shock troops/for the infinite. And will I know it/when I board the last one?” … “One thing’s for sure:/when its skipper finally/steps out on the bridge, he or she steps/straight from deja vu. So it was you,/all along, we’ll each exclaim, whoozit, buddy,/the one I never recognized but somehow knew,/that patched grey cloak, that slept-in suit,/that face at once a road map and a lava flow,/I should have known, we groan,/as each, laboriously,/ climbs aboard.”
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin is a hauntingly beautiful novel. Toibin’s graceful prose humanizes Mary. As readers, we feel her helplessness in the face of the inevitability of unfolding events, as well as her anguish at watching her son die so horrifically. She is brutally honest with herself and with the men who would endeavour to retell her and her son’s story in the way that suits them and their cause. The novel will probably not make the reading list at the Vatican, but never again will I look at the iconographic portraits of Mary and not think of this novel. Highly recommended.
I’ve just read The Purchase by Linda Spalding. The novel opens with Daniel, a shunned Quaker, travelling with his orphaned children and his new wife from Pennsylvania to Virginia. In a decision that goes against his own beliefs, he buys a young slave, even trading away his beloved horse, Miss Patch, in the bargain. All of the novel’s action flows from this single bad decision. The writing is graceful and lyrical. Even the scenes that are horrifying are beautifully rendered. But The Purchase is not only about the horrors and the dehumanizing effects of slavery and of slave-owning, the novel also ventures into that territory with which every one of us is familiar: the amazing human capacity to rationalize and justify our most self-serving decisions and behaviours, even those that stand in stark opposition to our most deeply held principles. Sometimes, we even invoke God’s will in our justifications. This is a novel filled with flawed, i.e., deeply human, characters, and the author’s use of omniscient point of view is skillful in illuminating those characters. We understand their decisions even as we grieve for them. Highly recommended.