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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.

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.


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.

The Quiet Twin, by Dan Vyleta


      • Everyone!!
      • WWII history buffs
      • those who love an intriguing yet realistic murder mystery

The Book:

The Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta is about the reasons we speak and the reasons we stay quiet.

The book set in Vienna at the wake of WWII centres around the lives of people living in an apartment block.  The narrative pivots around a string of murders that have occurred in the apartment’s vicinity. The solving of the crimes leaves the community nervous as the Nazis infiltrate the city’s police force. The pro-party detectives intend to solve the crimes to prove their control over all matters of Vienna.

The  characters that make up this fast read are connected to each other because they live in close proximity to each other. As fellow apartment dwellers with windows that face a central courtyard,  they can see into neighbours windows and draw inferences and theories about the people they live beside.

Vyleta reveals the world of  has dangerous consequences when much of our day-to-day interactions with people are bases on inferences and theories. As the story progresses, Vyleta does a striking job of carrying the people through the plot and each are a metaphor for the reasons humans stay quiet and hidden from the truth.

Some people are privy to real information about the murders, but they choose to remain quiet. One of the characters is afraid of being discovered as different in a society that praises conformity. Another character is paralyzed because she was abused as a child and it traumatized her. Another person is angry. A different character is afraid of being insignificant.

This book explores why individuals keep quiet, even if there are injustices. Often the reasons are selfish, but in many ways instinctive.  People are worried to be found out or have our own secret’s exposed. The most memorable character for me, was Dr. Anton Beer. A man who quit his psychiatry practise in order to pursue quieter and less noticeable (under the Nazi regime) means of medicine. He is an enigma,and his quietness and secretiveness  is an insightful theory as to why sensitive and intelligent people could let crimes against humanity occur.

Vyleta’s writing is smooth and easy like a nice cold beer.  Someone who appreciates literary novels would enjoy this book, but it would also be enjoyed by fans of fast paced mystery novels.  The characters were complex and engrossing.

Dan Vyleta is a historian and a writer.  My favourite description of himself is that he is an inveterate migrant. I believe he lives in Toronto. The Quiet Twin is his second novel, and was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. It gets a giant: READ IT from me!

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman


Well, to be honest, I had a hard time classifying this book. I think it would be liked by a wide range of people. Just keep reading and see if anything sparks your interest.

The Book:

I just found a treasure!

For years now, I have been trying to write short stories. I have a bit of a collection under my belt now, but I don’t really love any of them.  It is completely logical, because I don’t like short stories. I would rather read a nice long novel and fall into love (or hate) while I become entwined in the characters. Short stories are just too brief to get to know someone. But, the short stories in this collection by Tom Rachman are delightfully short. Every one of them!

Rachman was shortlisted for the Giller Prize this year for The Imperfectionists. This book was easy to read and reminded me of a good BBC miniseries. It is about the last dying days of an English language newspaper set up in Rome. After being in print publication for decades, the newspaper is shutting down.  Each chapter is about a person involved in some way with the paper. Each chapter is also a different narrative and could stand alone as an individual short story. The book feels real. The plot is held together well and is clear and cohesive. It is lighthearted and soft, yet in the same moment I felt as close and intimate with the cast of characters as if I’d spent weeks reading the book (instead of two days). Each of the character’s feelings and their human drama were palpable and beautifully realized. Rachman could teach me a thing or two about character building! Wowzers!

This is Tom Rachman’s first book, although he has been a journalist for years. He brought to life a cast of characters using only a few thousand words for each, this fact immensely impressed me. Also, that one week after finishing the book, I can still recall very clearly almost all of the people in the novel and many of their idiosyncrasies.  Did I mention that I was impressed with Rachman’s talent?

There were moments while deep in the prose, that struck me as simple and profound at the same time.  He wrote one woman in an airplane meeting a potential love interest, and he writes her so well I swear he must have asked a woman exactly what goes through her mind. He nailed it right down to that feeling of being in that space. I am looking forward to reading his next work.

This book would make a great Christmas gift for someone who likes fiction, but not long fiction. It is well written and a quick read, but it is woven with non-fiction newspaper headlines from 2008.  Here is the link on Amazon!

I have a confession to make as well. Another reason I LOVED this book is because of this:

Hayden's Brooding Intensity
Tom Rachman's Brooding Intensity

This is a picture of Hayden (left) beside the author of The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman. I think they look a lot alike. Every time I glanced upon the back of the novel, I would see those big bedroom eyes and think of Hayden, who I adore.

And so, I leave you with Barely Friends, my favorite song from Hayden’s 2008 album In Field and Town, because I am a shameless Hayden promoter.

Generation A by Douglas Coupland

Who Will Like it?

  • those who like cultural critiques
  • those who like books with little or no romance
  • people who like atypical novels, avant garde

The Plot

I just finished Generation A.

I don’t read much Coupland (why does he pronounce “cope” and not “coup”?), but I do think he is eccentric, talented and insightful. His observations on the current state of society are bang on and often take away my breath away, or pull the metaphorical rug from under my slightly shaky feet.

Despite all these amazing reasons, I don’t read Coupland often because I don’t find his writing voice compelling.

Generation A did not disappoint. It is a powerful book set in the near future about five people stung by bees around the same time, in different parts of the world. People consider this an amazing event because bees have been extinct for years

The five people are similar in their inability to connect and have meaningful relationships with those around them. They all have a general unease with a new drug, called Solon. This medication is a stress reducing drug that speeds up the perception of time. It is so addictive that once you take it, you can never come off it.

The five individuals are swept away by government officials, placed in isolation, and studied to learn why the bees have considered them special. A conspiracy unfolds involving drug corporations. The drug companies are interested because the bee-stung people do not feel a need for Solon. Their detachment and laissez-faire attitude is what the company intends Solon to do anyways. They take Serum from their brains and it’s farmed to make the ultimate Solon.  The production of Solon was the reason the bees became extinct. Thus,  the current way of Solon production could be stopped and the remaining bee population would bounce back.

I won’t say more regarding the plot.


Does anyone else remember when that study was released about the decrease in world bee population? (click here to see the study) It was somehow related to the increase in cell phone usage and the radiation interrupting bees’ ability to communicate with each other and thus their ability to make honey and continue on with their bee lives.  It is ironic that cellphones, which are supposed to help us communicate better, are destroying bees’ ability to communicate and survive.

In Generation A, the reader gets the sense that the world is small, and it has been made small by things like cellphones and other forms of digital communication. Ironically though, the people in the book are not connecting with each other in meaningful ways. The digital world is changing how we communicate, our language, and the way we internalize our daily existence. I often find myself thinking in Facebook status language “Elisha Stam Judson… hates it when she drops her fork while eating pancakes.” It’s embarrassing, but it’s also incredibly mind-boggling. Cellphones and digital social networks are around to keep us better in touch, but maybe, like the bees, it’s interrupting with the natural way of things.

People are constantly texting. Have you intentionally spent time with someone only to have them text every five minutes? (or five seconds) It’s ironic because it interferes with your ability to connect with them. It’s not even the physical act of texting or “liking” something on Facebook that is a hindrance to connecting. I think it has something to do with attention. Our culture is changing, and very rapidly.

Coupland believes a new species is evolving.

Generation A also says some poignant things about the story of man. About our cultural narratives and our own personal narratives. If you sit down and ask people to tell a story off the top of their heads, Coupland believes common themes will develop. These are what we should unite around. The desires in our hearts.

I was taken aback by Coupland’s description of prayer as trying to make sense of the story in your head. That prayer can take you to the place where the unimportant voices are drowned out. I think there are quite a lot of unimportant voices that drown out my meaningful thoughts.

Just to warn you: there’s quite a bit of swearing in this book, one of the main character has Tourette’s Syndrome.

“Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs right? Well, the media does such tremendous favours when they call you Generation X right? Two clicks from the very end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A.  As much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Where To Buy Books Online

Save Money on Books

I’m [Alan here, not Elisha] a huge advocate of saving money and getting freebies, wherever possible and ethical. It’s like a fun game that pays.  I assume that since you’re reading book reviews, that you read and buy books.  So, I thought I’d tell you all how to save a few bucks on books.

#1.  Go to your Public Library

I love using the library.  They rarely let me down, in terms of selection, and I can order the books online and wait for them to send me an email alert.   The email comes in, and I say, “Oooo, finally the “Babysitter’s Club” latest novel!”  This applies for movies, magazines and cds (compact discs, for you young ones – a physical disc that plays “mp3s”).

#2.  Sign up for www.Ebates.com

This site applies to ALL kinds of online shopping. Dell, eBay, Groupon, etc.  There are lists of online shops on this website. If you click on the website that you’re going to shop from anyways, it will give you a percentage cash back.   I don’t see why you wouldn’t use it.  I heard about it through this personal finance blog (click here).  This applies to many bookstores, such as….

#3.  Shop here for New and Used books



www.amazon.com or .ca

Hey, they all start with “A.” This is not an exhaustive list, but it does touch on my three favourites.  Abebooks.com often has books for $1 (with shipping, sometimes substantially higher than the cost of the book).  Alibris and amazon also sell used books at very low prices.

Go ahead – read and save.  You can thank me (Alan) by using the money wisely, by paying off some debt or giving it to charity.  Or blow it on iPhone apps.

Continue reading Where To Buy Books Online