Category Archives: authors

Giddy for the Giller #3: 419 by Will Ferguson

Alright- here’s the first Giddy for the Giller confession:

I did NOT finish this one, and after 4 overdue days at my library, I was disheartened and GAVE UP. It is a bit discouraging because this one is “favoured” to win the grand prize.  Hmmmm… Well, you win some an you lose some (plots that is!)

Dear Mr. Ferguson, I’ve not previously heard of you before. You aren’t really in my genre. So, maybe my opinion doesn’t matter. In my defense, I consider myself a very well rounded reader who enjoys the odd thriller, particularly ones about international issues.  Something about your book made me put it down, unable to finish it.

419 is about global consequences and the thin way in which survival loops together exploitation. A retired school teacher in Calgary commits suicide. His family soon learns that he was suffering financial ruin at the hands of a Nigerian 419 internet scam. His daughter, Laura, wants retribution for his death. The Canadian police have no ability to enact justice in Nigeria. Laura travels to Nigeria herself, putting herself in great danger because the 419 scammers are linked to crime lords who are accountable to no one.

One narrative follows Laura, the teacher’s daughter. Another narrative follows Winston, the man in Nigeria who makes a living frauding people of money. There is also a narrative about a pregnant African woman that I don’t know much about, but she is starving and traveling through Africa and looking for someone. That’s as far as I got.

The premise of 419 was interesting and the characters were decent. Dialogue was on par with any decent author. But the 340 pages of 419 were not compelling enough to keep reading. There was this lengthy diatribe about the “Shell Man”  and the oil exploitation that “white man” has imposed on the Nigerians in recent history.

As legitimate as the story of the death of a culture, and the exploitation of a vulnerable people, these chapters did not seem credible. Or perhaps they seemed to simple. But I found it bulky and boring.

Not every book is for me, and someone else might like this. It may make an interesting gift idea for a person who reads lots of National Geographic (ie my Dad).  It almost reads like investigative journalism, or maybe like a Robert Ludlum novel, but with less suspense.

The long and short of this is, it’s been an interesting Giller shortlist. This one was surprising for me.
Cheers!

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Giddy for the Giller #2:The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride is a decent read.

Ruth, the main character, is a Jewish woman growing up in Montreal in the 50s.  Ruth was abandoned by her mother as a newborn, leaving her husband and daughter and a mystery. Her mother immigrated from Russia right after the war, and leaves a past there that is hard for Ruth to reconcile. Identity seems irrelevant, and family ties loose.

Ruth is loved by her family and community, but spends her “growing up” years trying to let the people who loved and raised her, fill the void that was left by her mother.

The message of this book is compelling, especially about the immigrants after WWII who were missing people and their former lives. Immigrants coming into Canada were struggling to carry on and rebuild. I immediately pondered the relevance of a society built up on these issues. In the late 1940s, and during the 1950s, Canada received 1.5 million immigrants from Europe.  Among these numbers were all four of my grandparents.

The characters were a bit flat. I enjoyed the flashbacks in the story about Europe, but not the 1990s Montreal stuff because it felt forced and cliched. The interest for me in the story was the Jewish immigrants fleeing to Canada, or a place where they were meant to settle and rebuild halved lives.

There were a few circumstantial and non-relevant things that struck me as weird about this book: one, that it was set in Montreal (again, so was Inside by Alix Ohlin); also, Nancy Richler writes about Montreal, and so did Mordecai Richler, maybe they are related.

But the story wasn’t profound or new. It felt like a novel that could have been published thirty years ago. It detailed life in an older style of writing. One where the reader sees the character grow up and become someone. These are traditional Canadian novels, but I still finished it and felt enriched by it.

Cheers!

Giddy for the Giller #1: Inside by Alix Ohlin

Inside by Alix Ohlin was a fast and tidy read. The novel is made up of four narratives shoved all together into a cohesive message  about love and pain. It also explores what keeps humans together and interacting, despite all the pain.

The story seems to be the most about Grace, an idealistic therapist who wants to save people who have been wounded and broken. This desire is not isolated to just her clients, but spills over into her own relationships. Grace wants to throw herself at someone and really know them inside, but it often turns into a vulnerability. In the end, she learns emotional restraint keeping her insides inside, without compromising intimacy.

Ohlin weaves a novel that is rich with insight and care. The characters are real, although maybe a tiny bit bland. I still think it was lovely. The premise was simple, and in a way feels like anyone’s life. I was interested in the characters, but I still felt that the novel lacked a certain flair. The outcomes seemed too predictable.

I have not read a book like this is a while. It’s simple, but with enough meat to satisfy a literary appetite. I loved how Ohlin explored how we bear witness to each others pain. Mitch, Grace’s ex-husband who was also a therapist says:

Sometimes he hated himself simply because he was alive when others were not, and he wanted to wipe out the memories of every patient he’d ever had, every problem he’s caused or heard about or failed to alleviate. Other times he thought he would never forget any of these things and that it was important not to, perhaps the most important task of his life. Witnessing the pain of others is the very least you can do in this world. It’s how you know when your turn comes, someone will be there with you.

And I think this is the point really of the inside lives we hold and keep and carry. We share them to know we are alive, and so others will know we will listen too.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. Some of my favorite things in life are eating chocolate, learning about new things, and uninterrupted sleep (preferably through the night). Swamplandia! helped with ONE of those. It was fascinating!

This ambitious novel, written by the twenty-nine year old Karen Russell, was buzzing around on some must read lists for 2012.  Swamplandia! is a theme park deep in the Florida Everglades. It’s an almost fantastical place with gator wrestling, sensational Everglades memorabilia, a quasi-historical museum and an endangered family called the Bigtrees.

Ava is a thirteen year old girl. She has an older brother, Kiwi, and an older sister, Osceola. Her family is normal in a sense that they love each other, they have history and they are alive. But they are also a little strange. They live isolated but fulfilling lives on one of the alleged Ten Thousand Islands (not our Ten Thousand Islands) of the Florida Everglades. The Bigtree family’s connections with the rest of the world are few. One is an old  houseboat that serves as an outdated library for the very scattered community of islanders. The other is the ferry that brings tourists back and forth from the mainland to adventure in Swamplandia!

Hilola Bigtree is the mother of this family and she is also the main gator wrestler!  (exclamation point was not really necessary in this sentence) She’s good; a good showman and a good mother. But she dies quickly of cervical cancer leaving her family fragmented,  and the struggling theme park without its headliner.

Simultaneous to Hilola’s death and Swamplandia!’s fizzle is a mainland theme park opening called The World of Darkness. Tourists stop coming and the family’s way of making a living and surviving in the proud Everglades impossible due disheartening big corporation market push over.

The mourning children deal with their deep loss. Kiwi leaves the island for the mainland with intentions to make money and save Swamplandia! He ends up getting a job at The World of Darkness as a janitor.

Osceola becomes a spiritualist  using an Ouija board to try and contact her dead mother. Unfortunately, her mother is not accessible and she starts dating ghosts of young men.

Ava trains with great diligence, dreaming to be the next Hilola Bigtree, the best gator wrestler in the world. She tends and trains the gators in their pit as hard as her thirteen-year-old self can. 

Their father leaves the island to save the bankrupt island. The children believe he is meeting with investors for a few weeks, but he is actually working on the mainland as well. Kiwi is gone, and Osceola and Ava are left on their own to tend to the gators and the island. Osceola starts to become more and more bizarre. She runs away, deeply in love with a dead dredgeman to elope in The Underworld, which is where dead people go.

Ava wakes up alone with a note explaining the run away, and a promise ringing in her ears to her brother about keeping their whimsical sister grounded. She sets off with a strange, transient man who is known by locals as the Bird Man, a transient middle-aged man who scares away troublesome birds. The Bird Man’s appearance is serendipitous because he tells Ava he knows the way to The Underworld and can help save her sister.

Evil and hardship await the siblings as they follow their own way to save their realities. In the end it seems that people must be adaptable to the way the world changes. Even if it is for the worse.  Because life can always be full of love.

Why?

Swamplandia! is eerie and haunting. Some parts reminded me of The Dead Marshes of Tolkien and even though the Everglades is a real place, the book feels like a fantasy. It’s fabulously alluring and Russell uses amazing imagery to pull it off.  In the scene where Ava and the Bird Man are setting out, one lovely sentence reads like this:

We poled around the scummy crystals of the oyster beds and made a beeline for the mirror-like slough. I watched a line of water creep up his pole as the channel deepened, like the mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer, and then we broke into wild sun (page 160).

This movie is Tim Burtonesque, complete with a creepy and unreadable Johnny Depp character. I think people would enjoy the humour and stunning beauty that Ava sees. Russell draws her alive, and gritty, although slightly more mature than thirteen would allow; she is easy to root for and connect to.

Swamplandia! is thick with details. Russell knows the world of the Everglades well, and the history portrayed in the novel about the land and the people who survive there is rich and enthralling. Also, every time that Swamplandia! is printed in this lovely tome, Swamplandia! has an exclamation mark on it. It’s details like that which really won me over. 

This book made me do a lot of online research about the Everglades. I now want to go there someday and I love books that expose me to new and exciting places. Everglades is an amazing place! I read some cool stuff here: Everglades in Wikipedia, and the government website for the national park.

I also enjoyed the theme of old vs new, of history vs progress. Swamplandia! was old-fashioned and a bit out of touch with popular culture. The World of Darkness (Read: World of Disney) represents the large-scale corporations that have all but taken over the States (and Canada). Russell also talks about survival of the fittest.

The tension between these two ideas makes for a thought-provoking read. Swamplandia! was one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.

Touch, by Alexi Zentner (or WHY I READ)

Touch (and why I read)

I love to read. As an adolescent, I read the entire young adult section at my tiny municipal library. This fervor has not lessened with age. Why do I like to read so much?

There are easy answers to this question.  Maybe I’m bored (or boring!) Or, reading takes me to places I would never otherwise go.  What is it about holding a book? I could watch a movie and get the same entertainment and artistic introspection.

I read because I want connection.

A book tells me what someone is thinking. Another person’s spirit connects with me and expands my mind. If the book is gratifying, it can give words and comprehension to feelings I didn’t even know I was dealing with. Thoughts sit in the back of my mind waiting for words to pull them out. It’s a similar feeling to when you learn a new word for the first time; afterward, the word will pop up everywhere.

I don’t know what the meaning of life is, but I have some small notions. When I read, these ideas seem bigger and clearer.  Books help me see more of the world; I can hear another person’s thoughts and then I understand life more acutely.

I’ve been hovering over the significance of religion in society, considering its necessities and implications. As luck would have it, last month I picked up a book called Touch by Alexi Zentner (Knopf Canada, 2011).  The book, set in the gold rush town Sawgamet, in interior BC, explores the connection between three generations of a family. Starting with the first settlers in the 19th Century, Zentner’s Touch explores the way belief and faith change the memories we use to weave our stories together.

Sawgamet is a world of ghosts and ancient monsters living in the woods and deep crevices of the rivers and lakes. Interior British Columbia in the 1800s was a world untouched and ancient. To make sense of this harsh world, legends and folklore abounded.  As more settlers came, they pushed the woods away with each cut tree. As the town grew, the forests become less dark and frightening. The wild became less wild, the cold less intense, starvation a rarer threat.  Thus, the stories people use to fight these fears, less important.

Touch, Alexi Zentner

As I age, certain fears I had are less encompassing. As a result, the beliefs I built my existence on are refining. I am left to wonder what holds me to this world I live in. What sort of person am I when the things I’ve built my life around settle down and become as see-through as the apparitions in the deep Sawgamet woods?

I don’t know the answer to this. But I’m glad that someone else is wondering these things too. Even if I don’t find answers to questions of my purpose, at the very least I’ve read some good literature.

In the spirit of connections between authors and their readers, I’m very excited for this year’s Hamilton GritLit Festival, a weekend event with readings and workshops starting on Wednesday, March 28th, 2012.

Alexi Zentner will be a guest reader on Friday evening (March 30th, 2012). The literary-minded in the city can find more information about GritLit Festival on their website at http://www.gritlit.ca.

The Book Thief by Markus Kuzak

My first reaction to this book was WOWZERS!

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief cover

What a gorgeous book.

I turned to the last pages and found a young adult study guide at the back. As it turns out, the book is actually considered a young adult book. WHAT?!? So, second reaction was, I was reading a teen book, and didn’t notice!

I am both flabbergasted about what defines youth fiction, and amazed at the care and time put into this book. What an amazing piece of fiction. Zusak in The Book Thief has given me a story I will remember for the rest of my life.

The Book Thief is set in the years of the Second World War, in Germany. The main character is a ten-year old girl named Liesel whose mother is bringing her to a foster home. Her mother must leave them because, for reasons unknown to the reader, she can no longer take care of Liesel or her brother. On the train ride there, Liesel’s brother dies.

Enter: the narrator. He makes his grand entrance by taking away the soul of her brother. This is the crux of the book and what makes it so brilliant. The narrator is death. It is a unique literary technique to personify something so tangible, yet universally feared. And it also gives something to the book that makes it very much alive (ironically). Zusak makes the book bearable, for such a sensitive soul as myself, with humour and reality. At this time, death is busy. He is busy taking souls away all over the world. But death, as portrayed in The Book Thief is tongue-in-cheek funny, poetic and sensitive. We know he has feelings for those left behind.

We follow beautiful and vivacious Liesel, through her adolescence. But the reality of her pubescent years is a harsh one, with bomb shelters, Hitler Youth meetings, and stealing from farmers because they have nothing but watery (pea) soup. The author impressed me with the absoluteness that life and love fill the cracks of human brokenness and suffering.

Hans, her foster father teaches Liesel to read, and she becomes the book thief, someone who steals books because she loves them so much (naturally I can relate to a love of books). The snatching of literature become the foundations of her life and soul. Giving flight to her thoughts and helping her to make sense of the grave world around her.

The most significant character in the book is Max Vandenberg, a hunted Jew who comes to Hans for hiding. In World War One Max’s father saved Hans’ life. To return the favour, they hide Max and feed him, but his spirit is broken, and he wishes to hide like a rat in the cold dark basement.

It is Liesel, and her vitality, that keeps him alive. She reads to him, and listens to his stories and they soon develop a depth of friendship that can allow their souls to survive Nazi Germany. In one moving chapter, Max rips out pages from his copy of Mein Kampf. He paints over the words with white paint and hangs them to dry. He than writes a story with black paint over top of the pages about surviving and about being alive.

The end of the novel is hard to get through. It is sad. But I also felt prepared for it, because in this world is death really a surprise? It is the hope that the life of those remaining continues even after the death of loved ones. For some reason, the reader is comforted as well, by the fact that life was so present before hand.

Why?

I think most people have a general interest in WWII. If you like to read about the social history of war-time in Germany, this book would interest you. It is also unique, because the perspective of a nonconformist German family during WWII is somewhat uncommon in literature. But even if that doesn’t really interest you, the characters are memorable and the writing is dazzling and full. Zusak is a talented author, with emotion spilling out of the words he writes.

In the beginning, it took me a bit to get a hold of the narrative. It was hard to place the narrator, and for good reason (but once you realise who the narrator is, you can jump right in).

The only other issue I have with the book, is that I had never heard of it.

It was published in 2006, but it was marketed as a young adult book. I think it could have been more broad than that. The book deals with love, loss, lust, survival, death and war. These are done in a mature and thought-provoking way. Please, do yourself a favour and read this one.

Cheers!

The author’s website is worth a perusal (if I piqued your interest).  An interview with him about The Book Thief can be found here.

Or read the first chapter of The Book Thief.