Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Art of Disappearing

The Art of Disappearing / Ivy Pochoda
New York: St. Martin's, c2009
311 p.

This a perfect title to review after my week long absence from the blog ;) Although my disappearance was not as exciting or unusual as the characters' in this book, being only a regular busy time.

This is Ivy Pochoda's first novel, and it features Toby Warring, a magician whose dream is to get to Las Vegas, and Mel Snow, a travelling textile designer; the two cross paths in small town Nevada, and end up marrying two days later in the Silver Bells All-Nite Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. The atmosphere of the story is full of mystery, glamour, love & passion, reality vs. the imagination, and just a little bit of sadness as well. The idea of illusion permeates the book, but Toby's magic is a little more authentic than other performing magicians. While Mel realizes that he is a real magician, so does a guild of old magicians living in seclusion in Amsterdam.

They invite Toby to join them, but he turns them down; that is, until his confidence in his own powers causes his big breakthrough performance to turn into a tragedy. Toby and Mel flee to Amsterdam to recover themselves, and their relationship. Toby's longed-for salvation reveals itself, taking the form of a final and irresistible magical apparatus in the home of the mysterious magician they are staying with. Unfortunately, the pull of the apparatus, The Disappearing World, is stronger than any other for Toby, upsetting Mel and causing her to wonder about their future together.

The book is set primarily in the deserts around Las Vegas, with the contrasting watery world of rainy Amsterdam appearing in the second half. The descriptions are wonderful. Some of the images are as impressive as the landscapes Toby conjures from sand; they seem real and three dimensional, and create a real place in the imagination. I found this descriptive skill one of the highlights of the book.

Various odd and magical things happen all around these two, always. Toby, who is a real magician, meets Mel, who hears fabrics speaking to her -- she really does, it is not just a fanciful metaphor. Mel's brother was a water baby who finally disappeared into the ocean as an adult, and his particular story is revisited throughout the book as well. In Amsterdam, they meet a group of designers and artists who are just as bohemian, unexpected, and unusual as the failed magicians who hide themselves away.

Unfortunately, I felt it was an overabundance of riches; a first book with everything crammed into it like an overstuffed magician's bag of tricks. There is so much fancy in it, and yet it seems to be set in a perfectly realistic world. I had trouble throughout my reading, as I couldn't tell where to put this book. It has blurbs from literary authors, and seems to be presented as a literary novel, and yet it feels more like a speculative novel, following some genre conventions. Plus the cover somehow reminded me of the Odd Thomas books by Dean Koontz, and I just couldn't get that out of my mind. Also, the layers of Toby's imaginative worlds which he inhabits as a living being started to confuse me. Which one was real? I am guessing the point of those worlds was to highlight the illusion that was a theme of the book, but it just started to tire me out. This was a book that I really wanted to love, but just didn't. I read it to the end and saw a lot of interesting potential in her writing; I would easily try again with her second novel when it appears.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Mauve / Simon Garfield
London: Faber & Faber, c2000.
224 p.

I've had this book for quite a while, having picked it up because of the topic -- it tells the story of William Perkin and his discovery in 1856 of the first successful aniline dye (made from coal tar derivatives) -- the colour 'mauve'. He made this discovery accidentally; what he was really trying to do was to create a synthetic form of quinine to treat the malaria that was still rampant across the British Empire. His willingness to experiment with the actual results lead to mauve.

I thought the science of this discovery would be interesting, plus a large part of his success was due to the fashion world taking up this colour, which sounded like it could be fun. I was correct, and was pleased to find that this was an easy, entertaining, and thorough book. It focuses on William Perkin, but goes beyond simply his life, his discoveries and his business to show how the new colours (and the new industry) shaped fashion, economies, and even wartime innovations, including explosives.

The writing is very clear and comprehensible, making the life of this young chemist fascinating and the world of academic vs. commercial chemistry actually quite intriguing. Garfield covers the specific science of the dyes, but also the relevance to society as a whole, in so many areas. He also shows how it was both Perkin's actual discovery and his willingness to risk a scientific career on making a commercial success of his colour that changed the way chemistry was perceived, making it a more obvious choice for students who wanted to make money at their work. (Perkin was 18 when he discovered mauve, and his father staked everything to create a factory in which William, his brother Thomas and their father all worked -- and they made a LOT of money.)

Garfield even talks about the environmental effects of this surge in dye-making. He records that the stream outside Perkin's factory would change colour every week, and that a factory in France was convicted of poisoning villagers downstream with arsenic. He follows the industry from the moment that mauve became a fashionable mania (shortly followed by another chemical dye from France called magenta) to our present day experience of taking multiple colours for granted. Influences such as war (the desire to dye uniforms surprised me), or fashion, or hard chemistry all have a place in this story, and keep it from being too narrow or dull.

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone curious about how such aniline dyes came about, or how our need to colour our world in a multitude of hues has shaped so many areas of our societies. There is one section, in which Garfield is sharing a list of registered colours via the National Bureau of Standards, Washington DC, that sounds like poetry. A gorgeous and evocative list of names and sources of colour!

Extremely well-written, not obfuscating the story with overly scientific explanations and yet not minimizing the importance of the science, this is a great general read. Lots of great "dinner party tidbits" in this one -- I always love a science book that makes you sound smart in general conversation ;) I know that I am looking at all the colours in my environment a little differently now.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Garlic Edition

This weekend I went to the Stratford Garlic Festival. This has become a tradition for me -- as long as I am not working I attend and stuff myself with garlicky samples of all kinds and wander around looking at all the wonderful artisans and food people who are participating. I always end up taking things home - not all garlic - and enjoying the day. I look forward each year to bringing home a saskatoon berry pie; it makes me feel less homesick for Saskatchewan!

This year I tried out some pickled garlic scapes, garlic jelly, garlic peanut brittle, garlic fudge, and had an amazingly good vegetarian samosa as well. Once again, some of my fave vendors were there, including Distinctly Tea, who was featuring his famous Vampire Tea (a blend of garlic flakes, vanilla and either black tea or rooibos. It is surprisingly good.) Also, Nudge Nudge Fudge was there. And now Nudge Nudge Fudge is in my kitchen.... I couldn't resist some of their new flavours made for the Festival! I tried the garlic, of course, but purchased some other new and strange flavours for myself: lavender, chocolate chili, green tea (my fave!), pumpkin, apple cinnamon, and hoppin' jalapeno (and boy is that HOT). It is a laid back and entertaining day, and there is even a kids' tent, if you have kids to entertain -- our library's outreach program, PLOW, was there doing storytime in the morning.

In any case, being as this is Meatless Monday and I'm all about garlic this weekend I thought I'd share a favourite and very garlicky recipe. This recipe is dear to my heart both because it was featured in the Atwater Library Cookbook -- one of those fundraiser type cookbooks put together by the library my husband and I worked in at the time, and designed by my husband on an ancient Mac -- and its source was a local celebrity who was supporting the library. It was also the first meal my then-boyfriend, now husband, made for me on an early date. We've adapted it and don't know where the original cookbook is now, but we call it "Joe Fiorito Sauce" in honour of the person who contributed the original. Hope you will enjoy.

"Joe Fiorito Sauce"

5-6 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes with Italian herbs
Heaping teaspoon Italian Herbs
pinch sugar
Some fresh pasta

Sauté the garlic over medium-low heat in a generous drizzle of olive oil. You want there to be a lot of garlic -- when it starts getting fragrant, not brown, pour in a few tablespoons of tomato juice from the can and let it all sauté together until it becomes a paste of sorts. Don't rush this part, as the saute-ing is what really flavours the garlic. Drain the tomatoes (save the juice for something else) and break up the tomatoes into the pan. Stir it and simmer it all for a bit, then sprinkle in a pinch of sugar -- it takes down the acidity. Add in the Italian spices and stir. Let it simmer over low heat while you make pasta. This is best with some fresh pasta, spaghetti, linguini, or my favourite, tortellini. Also have some baguette to soak up the leftover sauce, you won't want to waste any! This makes 2 servings, as I like to have lots of this sauce on my pasta.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

September Joys

I love September, the beginning of fall weather, the back-to-school excitement, getting out warmer clothing and so on. I've noticed a few September-y things that I've enjoyed around the web recently so want to share a few of them.

Firstly, check out this gorgeous evocation of the season, found at Tea Leaves:

I'm so glad it's September. I even like writing the word "September." That sinuous S, the "ember" that calls to mind a fireplace, the first hints of orange and yellow foliage. The first Step towards true autumn.

Then, listen to a gorgeous poem entitled "Peaceful & Crimson" which I've blogged about this week at my blog that I keep as part of my business, Four Rooms Creative Self Care. Poet Tanya Davis (best known for her viral youtube clip "How to be alone") has created a poem for the CBC, and I enjoyed it greatly, especially the idea that September allows us to be released from the pressure to make the most of every sunny summer day outdoors!

If you need a good laugh, try listening to the September 8th interview of Alexander McCall Smith by Shelagh Rogers at the Woody Point Writer's Festival in Newfoundland. It was hilarious, he and Shelagh together are quite giddy. If you enjoy McCall Smith as I do, it will be well worth your time.

And of course, September begins the RIP Challenge -- if you're still thinking of joining, check out all the reviews already posted for some spooky inspiration.

What are your favourite things about September? Have you found any marvellous links to share?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Sky is Falling

The Sky is Falling / Caroline Adderson
Toronto: Thomas Allen, c2010.
310 p.

The cover of this caught my eye, that and the fact that I have always meant to read something by this highly recommended author. Not only is this cover eye-catching (I love gnomes) but it is also a clue to the story, which you come to discover slowly as you get deeper into the book.

This is a story that switches between two times: Vancouver in 1983 and in 2004. We follow Jane Z. from her beginnings as naive university student to her eventual existence as suburban mother.

Jane leaves Edmonton for Vancouver in 1982 to attend UBC (the University of British Columbia). She's not sure exactly what she wants to do, but is studying Russian language and literature. Her passion is for Chekhov, and this passion infuses the book, with Jane reading Chekhov aloud at times, with his stories being discussed in the narrative, with Jane's experiences in her Russian Lit class, with running lists of Jane's analysis of things like footwear or word choice in Chekhov. His style, his subject matter, his themes and characterizations, all seem to reflect or be reflected by this story.

Jane begins university living with her aunt, but is desperate to move on to campus for her second year to feel more connected to the whole university experience. By the time her parents agree to this, it is so late that everything is taken, and Jane ends up getting a room in a house filled with activists. This rag-tag bunch becomes her focus, with their concerns and squabbles taking over her life. As they argue about what can be done to halt nuclear war, what 'action' they can take, their relationships spiral downwards into distrust and potential violence.

Interspersed with this deeply realized tale of adolescent idealism is Jane's point of view from 20 years on. As the book opens, Jane sees an image of her old roommate Sonia in the newspaper, a picture of Sonia being released from her 20 year prison sentence. This throws Jane back into the events of twenty years ago, and we relive it through her eyes. She was particularly fascinated by Sonia when they were students, and so this situation brings up all those tangled emotions from student days. Both 80's Jane (commonly known as Zed due to her unwieldy Polish last name) and current Jane have full lives, with supporting characters who are fully drawn individuals. As she goes back and forth we get to know more about her past as well as figure out how she's ended up as a suburban doctor's wife and mother of a teenage son, working quietly as a freelance editor.

Jane sees the morning paper, and wonders whether she should visit Sonia now that she is out of prison. Finally, by the end of the book, she decides she should -- and with that visit all the glamour of those student years is dispersed as she realizes that you really can't go home again.

I found the structure of this book intriguing -- we are seeing the same person at two very different points in their life. And the characters! Adderson ably draws a multitude of young students, all different but all so real. I felt sorry for some of them, and detested some of them, but it was so easy to imagine the bookish Jane being mesmerized by them, drawn into their schemes by the charisma and convictions they held. The action of the story evolves very naturally out of the behaviour of each character; it felt inevitable considering each person's attitudes.

But along with that we have Chekhov's sensibility contrasting with the lives these young activists are so earnestly leading, feeling at least to me to be pointing out that human life is much more complex than political positions can usually account for. There is still a place for literature in this world of protest and activism; as Jane's Russian professor says at one point:

One thing I'm trying to teach you, my dear pupils, is to read what is really on page, to respond to it with all your hearts, as human beings. Literature will make you better person. It will teach you sympathy and compassion for all manner of peoples, but not if you read it with closed mind. Not if you read to prove your closed mind is right.

The story shifts as we have the appearance near the end of Jane's future husband, a punk with pins through his lip who, along with his other punk friends, saves her from the violence of one of her "peacenik" roommates. The expectation of violence is completely reversed in this scene, rather effectively. The co-existence of the punk scene with the insular, 60's-ish house Jane lives in is a bit unexpected as well.

All in all, there are many oppositions, clashing beliefs and black-and-whites that turn out to be gray in this book. It was addictive reading, and wonderfully evocative of a period. There was a lot of plot to keep you turning pages, but also amazing description and characterizations. I loved reading this and think it would be a fruitful source for discussion in a book group. So glad I finally read something by Caroline Adderson, and now I understand why so many people were telling me to pick up one of her books!

Caroline Adderson is the author of two internationally published novels (A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice) and two books of short stories: Bad Imaginings (Porcupine's Quill 1993) and Pleased to Meet You (Thomas Allen 2006). Her work has received numerous prize nominations including the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. A two-time Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and three-time CBC Literary Award winner, Caroline was also the recipient of the 2006 Marian Engel Award.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Wind Seller

The Wind Seller / Rachael Preston
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, c2006.
295 p.

Set in the small town of Kenomee, Nova Scotia, in 1924, this is a story of a community shaken up by the sudden appearance of a large ship washed up at their wharf. It is a strange ship, with a small crew which includes a long-legged, long-haired beautiful woman who dresses like a man, named Esmeralda. Not only that, there is no cargo. The inhabitants gather at the shore to take a look at this unusual sight, and the ship's captain asks a local mechanic on board to take a look at their engine, which has stopped working -- their reason for ending up at this wharf. The suspicious circumstances lead the locals to believe that this must be a ship of pirates, or of rum-runners, and they are correct.

This event is the big moment that the story revolves around, but it is more deeply the story of the people of Kenomee. Two characters are our main focus: Hetty Douglas, a nurse who was in Halifax during the Great Explosion, and was dismissed from nursing afterward. She needs an escape from the stress and shock she suffered, and so is married off to a distant cousin, a cold and abrupt man who nevertheless runs a successful factory and wants a wife. She is beginning to question her existence as she wakes from the emotional numbness she's felt since the Explosion. The second character is Noble Matheson, local boy who has his own problems. He's lost his beloved brother in the War, and has also just realized that he is likely the real father of the pompous local doctor's son.

Noble is trying to write a book - he's sent away for the Elinor Glyn System of Writing, hoping it will show him how to create a story. The system tells him to write about his own life; he thinks that there will be nothing to set down, but that very day, the rum runners arrive at the shore. It is the ship that eventually links Noble and Hetty as well. Hetty, former nurse, is called aboard to tend to a young crew member who is feverish. She realizes the only option to his gangrene is to amputate his leg, which she does; this action causes a lot of friction between she and her husband as well as a run-in with the old-fashioned local doctor who believes women (and specifically nurses) should not meddle in matters that don't concern them. A mutual dislike of the doctor leads to a kind of friendship between Hetty and Noble.

I found this book interesting, with a great Atlantic Canadian setting, and lots of historical detail about events such as the Great Explosion or the existence of rum-runners. There was a wide-ranging cast of characters, with a variety of social issues and concerns brought up, adding depth to the story. However, I didn't really like the ending, feeling a little bit like there was no real resolution.

At the end of the book, Esmeralda is arrested and taken to Halifax. Hetty feels compelled to go see her charged in court, so hitches a ride with Noble, who is on shady business of his own. Hetty stays with her aunt in Halifax, where her husband eventually locates her. He arrives and suddenly Hetty has resolved all her angst and is ready to head home with him again. She suddenly likes Peter; why? There didn't seem to be any reason why Peter would have changed, his character as built up didn't seem very changeable. He was a cold, stifling kind of husband, and I can't see Hetty's free spirit bending to that easily.

As for Noble, he never does "claim" his son, but he does find out that nearly everyone else knows the truth anyhow. He decides that what he will write will be a story for his son, about himself and his brother, so the boy will know the facts some day. Which is nice but rather tame considering his drunken and regretful revels earlier as he tried to deal with the facts.

In any case, this was enjoyable for its historical setting and the lively action and characterizations. There were probably many nurses and doctors suffering from emotional trauma after the Great Explosion, and Hetty is a complex portrait of such an individual. The book is fast paced, suited to its subject, and is an entertaining read.

Rachael Preston is a Hamilton-based writer. Her debut novel, Tent of Blue, was published in the fall of 2002 by Goose Lane Editions. A native of Yorkshire, England, Rachael has a Master’s degree in English Literature from Queen’s University and also studied at Emily Carr College in Vancouver. Rachael has worked freelance as an editor and copywriter. Currently Rachael teaches creative writing courses both in class and online for Mohawk and Sheridan Colleges.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chilly Outside, Chili Inside

Now that the weather is turning a bit, with some rain and cooler temperatures, it is a good time to start making meals in which I turn on the stove again. This week I'm sharing one of my favourite stalwart fall & winter cookbooks. Although I'm meatless every day, anyone who wants to start going meatless easily may find this book a very handy resource. There are tons of easy and delicious recipes in it that don't depend on meat for their heartiness.

The Vegetarian Chili Cookbook: 80 Deliciously Different One-Dish Meals / Robin Robertson
Boston: Harvard Common Press, c1998.
160 p.

This is a favourite cookbook, one I've had for some years. I've made at least half the recipes in it, with some turning into huge favourites.

It is what it says it is: a collection of 80 chili recipes. They range from the more traditional to some gourmet versions. Some are simple and quick, incorporating such things as ready-made veggie burgers and salsa, and others are very elegant, using seasonings like thyme and orange zest, chocolate or tequila. The connecting factor in all is the use of some kind of chili powder. Robertson opens the book by giving us some recipes for homemade chili powder of different heats. She closes the book with a wonderful chapter on recipes to use up leftover chili if you don't want to keep eating plain bowls of it for a week. (if you click on the book cover, you will be able to 'look inside' this book and see a few of the recipes).

Some of the recipes fit the chili designation loosely, such as one made with chickpeas, yellow peppers, tomatoes and apple juice - it does have a bit of chili flavour but is very mild and stew-like rather than spicy and chunky (and I love it). My favourite recipe in the book, though, is the last one, "Sandi's Award-Winning Five Spice Chili". It incorporates prepared vegetarian 'ground beef' (I like Yves brand), baked beans, and Chinese 5-spice powder, among other things. It is thick and faintly sweet and absolutely delicious, even though I have cut down the amount of 5-spice powder - I like a hint, not a strong taste, of that spice. It is a fun book to have out during fall and winter, with many options to try out.

After using this book heavily the first year I had it, I was thinking in chili when I made suppers, and thus came up with my own variety from what I had in the fridge one night. It is a milder mix, not too spicy, but still quite chili-like, and good over pasta or rice, or just with fresh bread alongside. I'll share it, since it was inspired by my usage of this book, and hope that you will want to pick up a copy of this great chili book for the chilly winter months ahead!

Chili Italiano

1 large onion
2-3 garlic cloves
1 green pepper
3 small carrots
1-2 medium zucchini
2 1/2 tbsp. chili powder
Dash cayenne
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes with Italian herbs
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes with Italian herbs, broken up
1 tsp. Italian herbs
1 19 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 pkg. Yves Veggie Cuisine Italian style Ground Round

Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until they begin to soften. Add all vegetables, chopped into bite sized pieces, chili powder and cayenne, and stir. Add both cans of tomatoes and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Keep on a low boil 10-15 minutes, stirring often. Add italian herbs, chickpeas and Ground Round, mix in and simmer for 10 minutes. Good over pasta or with toasted Italian bread.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Where the River Narrows

Where the River Narrows / Aimeé Laberge
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2003.
304 p.

This was an amazing book, a serendipitous find that I can't believe I hadn't heard of before. Set in Québec, it is a multi-generational story of a family of women, heavily enmeshed with the province's history. Our modern day narrator, Lucie, is a librarian and a history buff, who is working at the Canada House library in London, England, with her two daughters and her socially aware physician husband.

Lucie's quest to uncover family history leads us to the story of her staunchly Catholic great-grandmother and her mostly absent great-grandfather, one of the last of the coureur de bois. His wandering nature leads to the existence of his respectable 'city' family and another whole family in the bush. The repercussions of his presence and absence are felt down the generations.

Lucie's story is told in the first person, while the family stories are told in the third person. The original generation was deeply fascinating; the way in which the story was told, the elements of their lives, all of that was rich and complex and completely engrossing. The two daughters of the house grow up and create the second story, one full of children and marriages and Quebec history. There were so many children in the family, however, that I had to keep turning back to the family tree in the front of the book to make sure I had the character correctly placed. The large Catholic family with a multitude of children, plus a priest who appears and reappears in the tale, may seem a little bit stereotypical, yet that situation was the norm in Quebec for a very long time. Plus the main characters are such individuals that it doesn't fall into cliché, rather explores a typical situation from their viewpoints.

Lucie's story takes us out of Quebec: she has married her high school boyfriend, now a doctor, whose work has taken them to England where he surgically repairs infant hearts. He is so busy and so absorbed into the needs of these poor children he is treating that their marriage is becoming shaky. Lucie herself is absorbed in her work, the nature of which naturally leads her to ponder her own family history, and thus to create this tale for us. As she describes herself near the beginning:

That's me, Lucie Des Ruisseaux, a clumsy person with newsprint on her fingers and across her forehead: thirty-nine years old, married mother of two, Québécoise in London and part-time librarian at Canada House. The rest of my work day is spent doing research for graduate students and university teachers at the British Library. The latest request I received is from a master's student doing his thesis on the early economics of Nouvelle-France, namely, the fur trade.

The book is split into parts, and each begins with an excerpt from Cartier's "Rélations" (reports on his findings in the New World). I found it very effective, and also fascinating. That could be because a) I am Canadian and b)I have my BA in Canadian history and literature, both of which I love. But I still think it is a useful technique that any reader may find of interest, both to inform and simply to appreciate. As the story continues and we get deeper into the family and thus Quebec's history, these excerpts provide context and shading.

Each generation has its own charm and its own difficulties. The storytelling is marvellously rich, and the women are fantastic creations. The only part I wasn't drawn so deeply into was Lucie's young adult life, during the late 60's and into 1970 when the political climate in Québec was in an uproar and a politician was kidnapped and murdered. Perhaps that is just because those events still feel so recent, and I was taken a little out of the book while reading those passages.

Still, I enjoyed this book very much; the subject matter, the construction, the writing, the characters, all combined to make it a memorable and satisfying reading experience. It's the kind of read you can sink into and savour over an extended time; I found I read it slowly, taking time to mentally recreate the world she was revealing so thoroughly,and to follow each character's trajectory throughout the whole book. This is the novel I will now immediately think of when anyone asks me for a good book to read that would give them a sense of Québec.

Aimée Laberge has published stories in literary magazines, radio drama on the CBC and a children’s book Le Géant Bleu (Editions Ovale). Where the River Narrows is her first novel. A skilled animator and artist, her work has been seen on television and in the London Daily Telegraph. Born and raised in la belle province, Aimée Laberge is a direct descendant of the first settlers in New France. She has lived in Québec, Montréal, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and London, England. She now lives in with her family in Chicago. She is currently working on a novel set in the Arctic.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Tremblay's Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground / Lise Tremblay; translated by Linda Gaboriau.
Vancouver: Talonbooks, c2006.
96 p.

First published in French as La Heronniere, this book is a series of five connected short stories. It is set in an unnamed village in Northern Quebec, one in which the original inhabitants (especially the women) are leaving for better lives elsewhere. The village is thus dependent for its survival on its visitors: hunters, tourists, weekend cottagers, scientists studying birds. Yet it also resents these visitors.

Each story, told by an unnamed narrator in each case, reveals the interplay between long time residents and the various visitors that appear. Each one reminded me of the great Sherlock Holmes maxim that the countryside is more dangerous than the streets of London. The characters in these stories seem to act in a state of suspended violence, the possibility of which is ever-present (and does break through in one of the stories). But even when the violence is explicit, the narrator - an older man from the village - hides from the police his knowledge of the perpetrator, who was another resident and a relative.

It is a brief collection, the style brisk and unornamented. The simple and straightforward voice of the stories clashes with the elaborate interconnections and emotional upheavals of the lives represented -- in a completely good way. It is a kind of flat reportage of a fraught situation, which only serves to highlight the tension of the tales.

Some of the stories are narrated by men, some by women who are urban weekenders. The combination of male and female viewpoints as well as urban and rural creates a lot of complexity for such a small book. I can't say I 'enjoyed' all of it, considering the topics and some of the scenes which turned my stomach, but I thought it was excellently done. There was a strong sense of place, wonderful description and character development, and a few sentences that jumped out at me and were utterly memorable.

Overall, very worth the reading, and a reminder of why I like French Canadian fiction so much. Quebec writers don't seem to be afraid of looking at darker aspects of life, and that gothic sensibility, at least in the novels I choose, appeals to me greatly.

Born in 1957 in Saguenay, the award-winning writer Lise Tremblay is one of Quebec’s most prominent novelists. Her five books have won many awards, including a Governor General's award in 1999. She works as a literature professor in Montreal at Cégep du Vieux Montréal.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Lynes' Factory Voice

The Factory Voice / Jeanette Lynes
Regina: Coteau Books, c2009.
288 p.

This story is set in the Second World War, when women are helping to build Mosquitos (airplanes) for the War Effort. It's set in Fort William, Northern Ontario, home of an airplane factory, and has a wide cast of characters from all levels of society -- rich and poor, men and women, Finns, Englishmen, Canadians and more. The story takes inspiration from real life facts -- like the car factory in Fort William which was retooled into an airplane factory in WWII, or the life of aviation pioneer Elizabeth (Elsie)Macgill, the first female aeronautical engineer in Canada. But those facts only serve as supports for Lynes' high-flying creations within the book; she doesn't stick slavishly to real-life details, rather using them to colour the atmosphere of this novel.

It is a fun read, full of energy and great female characters. There are four main characters, and the story focuses on each in turn. They are: Audrey Foley, escaping from a distasteful arranged marriage to her family's farmhand in Spruce Grove, Alberta; Ruby Kozak, secretary at the airplane factory and editor of the internal newsletter, the eponymous Factory Voice; Florence Voutilanien, line worker on probation due to her mother's affiliation with the Red Finns; and finally Muriel McGregor, loosely inspired by Elsie Macgill. Other characters, mostly men but a few female relatives as well, swirl around these women and make up a rich background to the war years, years in which all four of these women find love, or find themselves.

The setting is strongly evoked: the clothing descriptions, the language (expressions like "swell", "dilly", and so on), the role of the young men who are signing up to go overseas, the expectations of the characters, all these seem to place us in a snappy version of the 40's. Lynes is very successful at creating the world of the factory, and each character's participation in the events of the story. The landscape of Northern Ontario is also a big part of the story; and those Mosquitos are aptly named.

Audrey opens the book, and her overeager, enthusiastic, wild voice is entertaining as she flees the story she's stuck with in Alberta, to climb to the most exalted post she can claim, that of snack cart girl. She is befriended by the glamorous Veronica Lake-like Ruby, who wants to use Audrey as her 'eyes and ears' on the factory floor. Sadly enough, Audrey is disillusioned pretty quickly by Ruby's single minded pursuit of a 'big story' -- Ruby has aspirations to investigative journalism, not just an existence as a newsletter editor. Meanwhile, Muriel struggles to figure out new possibilities for cold-weather airplane landing gear, while dealing with her attractions to two different men from her past. Poor Florence, large and ungainly, suffers with a crush on the smooth talking Johnny, and is surprised by her eventual and unexpected relationship with him. I enjoyed how each character sorts out both their romantic relationships and the thorny paths of female friendship, as well as figuring out the role that work plays in their lives. As this was an historical moment when women finally had more working options, I thought that making that issue central to these women's lives was timely and also really interesting!

There is a lot going on in this fast-paced novel, and it is entertaining and very evocative of the period. As the book description says:

Wrapped around the stories of these four women, is a mystery. Something’s gone wrong with the Mosquitoes being built for the war effort -- they keep crashing in flight tests, for no apparent reason. Is the problem with their design, or are they being sabotaged? By whom? The traitorous Red Finns? The political subversives who have recently escaped from one of the nearby prison camps? Everyone’s on high alert and “The Factory Voice” keeps abreast of the details or at least the rumours.
I think that summary pretty much covers it. This is a light read, lots of action and interest and WWII details, but by no means a serious, heavy book. I read it quickly and enjoyed the characters. It was rather refreshing to come across a book set in WWII that wasn't all about the horror and the European experience, but was rather about the Canadian home front and the lives of the women left to take care of everything. And I really loved the cover ;)

Other Voices:

KevinfromCanada says it was certainly fun to read and I have not been able to say that about many books lately.

Carla of Bound to Write highly recommends it as a delightful book, and she reviews it in the Globe & Mail

Jenn's Book Bag states I relished this novel. I enjoyed both the lead female characters, as well as the minor male ones... To sum it up, “keep ‘em flying” Ms. Lynes!

Jeanette Lynes is an award-winning author and has published half a dozen collections of her poetry. The Factory Voice is her first published work of fiction.

She has served in writer-in-residence positions in Saskatoon and Dawson Creek, BC. She holds a Ph.D in English from York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

She currently lives in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

Reading a Red & White Streak

I've been reading a blue streak this summer, though not blogging at the same speed. I should really change the expression to reading a "Red & White" streak, though, as it has nearly all been Canadian writers who've fascinated me. I was inspired by this year's Canadian Book Challenge to set myself the task of reading authors who are new to me, and for some reason, after reading one or two I became addicted and can't stop picking up new Canadian authors! I now have seven reviews pending...so will try to catch up on reviews a little bit, and share some of the fantastic new authors I've discovered.

The first up, following along with the batch of books set in Ontario that I've already read (all Ontarian by chance) is Jeanette Lynes' The Factory Voice. After that, I have a couple of French Canadian books, then a few set in BC, and one in Atlantic Canada. Looks like I'll need to find a couple set somewhere on the Prairies as well. If I keep this up I just may meet my Canadian Challenge early for once!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

It's Fall...Time for the RIP Challenge V

It's my favourite time of year...the beginning of Fall. I love the weather, the colours, the hints of cooler nights (hopefully soon), the food and the simple coziness inherent in Autumn. I do hope I'll be able to make hot chocolate and curl up under a blanket to read before the end of October, though with the weather we've been having lately, the very idea of blankets is anathema right now ;)

But another thing I love about Fall -- along with many other bloggers -- is the return of Carl's RIP Challenge! It's the fifth year he's been running it, and it runs from today, September 1 to the end of October, Halloween Night itself. Perfect.

The goal is to read seasonally, with something scary. R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril means:

Dark Fantasy.

I'm choosing to participate in Peril the First, reading 4 books of any length that fit this loose definition. I don't have a set list, but some of the books that are in my pool of choices are:

The Terror / Dan Simmons (for the 3rd year running...maybe I'll get to it this year!)

Something by Ray Bradbury, Daphne DuMaurier or M.R. James

Arthur Machen. My husband has been reading his eerie tales recently and they sound intriguing...

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde / RL Stevenson (again the influence of my husband, who has been reading a lot of Stevenson lately)

We have always lived in the castle / Shirley Jackson

Gothic Tales / Elizabeth Gaskell