Patrick deWitt, the bestselling author of The Sisters Brothers, delivers another knockout novel. Undermajordomo Minor is about Lucien (Lucy) Minor and his absurd employment at Castle Von Aux. The deranged castle master, Baron Von Aux, rambles around in the dark eating rats. The Baroness has disappeared. Nearby soldiers are at war over an unidentified idea. And the villagers Lucy meets are thick as thieves, figuratively and literally. Oh, and he falls in love.
Whereas The Sisters Brothers was a darkly comic, Western-inspired novel, Undermajordomo Minor is a darkly comic, orphan story/Gothic romance. Lucy leaves home shortly after his father’s death, and although he had two parents growing up, it seems they were lacking in parental affections. Lucy sets out on his own to make his fortune, or at least to turn his fortunes. He’s cheated death and been given the chance to do something interesting. It’s Oliver Twist meets Harry Potter (without the magic). Castle Von Aux and Lucy’s love interest Klara provide the Gothic romance elements. There’s a spooky castle with a general curse about the place, inclement weather and downtrodden villagers, a few marginally threatening mysteries (like what happened to Lucy’s predecessor Mr Broom), and Lucy himself as the fainting heroine.
One of my favourite scenes is between Lucy and his boss Mr Olderglough. They need to locate the Baron, tidy him up and make him suitably presentable to the Baroness and her guests. Mr Olderglough believes that trapping the Baron and knocking him on the head is the best solution. Lucy counters.
“And what next, I wonder?”
“After he’s been knocked unconscious, then shall we bring him to his chambers and manacle him to his bed. Next we will force-feed him, and bathe him, and shave him, and cut his hair and strive to resurrect his interest in sophisticated society.” Mr Olderglough rubbed his hands together. “Now, what do you think of it?”
Lucy said, “I think it is somewhat far-fetched, sir.”
“Are you not up for it?”
“I’m not, actually, no. And to be frank, sir, I don’t believe you are, either.”
“What sort of attitude is that? Let us rally, boy.”
“Let us come up with another plan.”
“Let us look within ourselves and search out the dormant warrior.”
“Mine is dormant to the point of non-existence, sir. There is no part of me that wishes to lay nakedly abed and await that man’s arrival.”
“I tell you you will not be alone.”
“And yet I shall surely feel alone, sir.”
Mr Olderglough looked down the length of his nose. “May I admit to being disappointed in you, boy.”
“You may write a lengthy treatise on the subject, sir, and I will read it with interest. But I highly doubt there will be anything written within those pages which will alter my dissatisfaction with the scheme.”
I remember The Sisters Brothers being funny and engaging right from page 1 but it took me a bit longer to get into Undermajordomo MInor. That said, this novel is just as crazy as the last. It’s very hard to stop turning the pages once you’re into it. I hope it secures as many well-deserved awards and honours as his last novel. Watch for this title!
You’ll like Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt if you liked his previous titles Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers, or if you enjoy the humour of tv shows and movies like Father Ted and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There’s something wonderful and absurd about it all.
Prep your bookshelf for this tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery, and cold-blooded murder. Patrick deWitt, award-winning author of The Sisters Brothers, has a new novel out this fall.
The Sisters Brothers was a fantastic read, one of my favourites that year, and it won the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and was also nominated for that year’s Man Booker and Scotiabank Giller Prize. I’m really looking forward to this one and have an advance copy to enjoy! (Thanks House of Anansi)
Full review to come, but the basics are this: Lucien Minor (Lucy) is young, foolish and rather daring. He accepts employment as “undermajordomo” at the disquieting Castle Von Aux (think Transylvania) and becomes embroiled in a love triangle. The book is full of the dark secrets and peculiar characters, so peculiar that you will be forced to turn the pages to see what’s next.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt will appear Sept. 5 simultaneously in Canada (House of Anansi Press), the U.K. (Granta Books), and the U.S. (Ecco/HarperCollins).
Four distinct voices tell the tale of one family’s attempt to transcend the Kabbalah Tree of Life. Each seeks enlightenment. Each failure has a lesson. This is a debut novel about faith, family and finding meaning from an accomplished writer, editor and playwright.
The Mystics of Mile End is set in Montreal’s Mile End, a mashup of Hasidic Jew and hipster cultures. Brother and sister, Lev and Samara Meyer, are at a loss after the death of their mother. They seek refuge in their faith and retaliate against their father David’s denial of that faith. David, for his part, is uncertain about his own faith and seeks the meaning of life in self-destructive ways. He’s a professor of Jewish mysticism, yet not any more enlightened, and his research into the Kabbalah Tree of Life, discovered posthumously by Samara, might be the one thing that finally connects the family.
The Torah is the five books of Moses, so I thought that there would be five books in The Mystics of Mile End but there are only four: Lev, David, Samara and Mile End.
I guess Mile End really is a character in the book. But beyond a geographical place, it’s where Holocaust survivor Chaim Glassman lives (in silence) with his wife. It’s where Mr Katz is assembling lemons and wired-up tin cans in his giant oak tree, and where Lev’s star-gazing friend Alex falls in love with Samara and then learns his own lessons and break throughs.
The novel is about what happens when we search for signs instead of living, and when we are silent instead of talking. It’s a strong debut novel.
One of my favourite discussions was about the 1970s cultural references in the novel. Here’s what I said:
Until our conversation last week, I did not pick up on the fact that the book is set in the 1970s because there are so many hipster trends today that allude to that period. It’s obvious now, and so overt, that it’s embarrassing to admit that I glazed over this aspect of the novel. As I started compiling a list of the cultural references, I couldn’t stop so this is not an exhaustive list, just want sprang to mind.
First off, I loved the Napolean-Dynamite visual I got when reading about Boo or Johnny wearing the white and blue striped gym socks and sweat bands. That alone brought levity to the underlying story of two boys dead in a school shooting. The peace symbol and style of clothes really do set the story in the 70s for me but Town/Heaven is presented as Salvation Army so, again, I didn’t initially understand the setting to be the 1970s. My assumption then, since there are no computers or video games, is that Town’s culture is that of America in current day.
The clothes especially made me laugh and Boo’s criticism of the cashmere sweater and egotism of 13-year-old girls reminded me of that all-about-me phase. It’s funny, especially, if the 70s was the Me decade, to end up in town with generations of 13 year old Americans. You would not feel so unique, which is maybe why some townies identify as gommers, or portal seekers, or find other ways of segmenting themselves off.
The other prominent 70s references for me were the Hardy Boys references, especially the building named Frank and Joe, the music references, and I immediately thought of the do-good council as the Brady Bunch.
I wonder if there are no cars in Town because 13 year olds can’t drive, or if that’s a reference to the oil crisis? Likely the former. And I don’t know enough about the history of the periodic table but there’s obviously an interesting study of those elements and their function within the storytelling.
What I don’t recall are references to Star Wars. But Boo is certainly aware of the starscape and Zig only changes it on occasion. I wonder for people who saw the moon landing first hand, if it was underwhelming. It’s cool, but there’s nothing there. Was that a letdown and made people wonder about heaven? If you imagined the moon as this great place then saw its pocked surface, did you question what you’d imagined about heaven?
The mental health building, Johnny’s behaviour, and the sense of being in purgatory or sentenced to 50 years in town reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There were several places in the novel when I wondered who the crazy actually was.
79-year-old Martha Andersson dreams of escaping her care home and robbing a bank.
Well I was worried about taking this book cover through customs but Martha Andersson’s luck was on my side. This old bird is a spring chicken when it comes to planning the perfect crime. Martha and her cronies are fed up with budget cuts in their retirement home that have led to reductions in the amount of coffee they can have per day and the elimination of biscuits with their tea. It’s simply outrageous and, what is even more insulting, the prisons in Sweden look like luxury accommodation in comparison. Something must be done.
When the old foggies can’t get improvements at home, they form the League of Pensioners and rob an art gallery. It’s the perfect crime. Even the police and newspapers make that claim. But what these seniors want is time in prison so they turn themselves in and figure out a way to keep the ransom money, return the paintings and be the Robin Hoods of their day.
Harlan runs away with the circus, becomes a barker (the guy who calls in the crowds) and eventually ends up in bed with the knife-throwers’ wife. You can imagine where it goes from there. Harlan is one of those guys who is always on the run. He runs away to the circus. He runs away from the circus. He runs away to the army. He runs and runs but he can’t run away from the voices in his head.
This depression-era saga follows our man Harlan from prairie homestead with an SOB dad to the traveling circus and into the army. He’s almost fodder in the Pacific theatre but the war dries up and he finds himself in real estate. “I coulda been a contender,” comes to mind. Funny enough Harlan finds his way in the most unusual way.
This is the last book by Wayne Tefs, award-winning author of nine novels, a collection of short stories and two memoirs. I have always enjoyed his writing and he is one of the prairies noteworthy authors. I felt very sad reading this book and also very pleased to have a personal connection to him.
A heart-breaking, yet uplifting, book about two teens who fall in love after meeting at a Cancer Kid Support Group. Maybe you’ve seen the movie or read the hype about this book, either way, it’s all the wonderful things said and none of the bad. Hazel’s cancer is stable but she has never been anything but terminal. The wait is on. A fellow support-group kid named Isaac is her companion when it comes to sighing and eye rolling during the support group sessions and one day Isaac brings his friend Augustus to the group. Augustus is missing a leg due to his cancer but is in all respects a heartthrob. Former basketball star, instant charmer and class clown, Augustus has it all and only eyes for Hazel from day 1. Admittedly he is staring because Hazel reminds him of an ex-girlfriend, or rather of a former girlfriend who passed away from her cancer.
It’s love in the cancer ward and, although author John Green has made up many of the medical aspects, he seems so spot on with teen malaise and irony that you might think he is still a teenager himself. I found this book more funny than sad and it’s definitely raw as well as raucous. There are lots of big questions in this book and the story acts as a pleasant philosophical examination of living, loving and taking risks.
A quaint love story, or rather unrequited love story. Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is the story of a saintly pensioner who walks, in yachting shoes, across England to say goodbye to a friend from long ago who is in a hospice. This is the other side of the story. Miss Queenie Hennessy is the friend who is waiting for Harold Fry, and while she waits, she writes out her confession and goodbye to Harold.
And I mean, really, the woman is dying. You’d think the man could get on a train or bus. But no, he is walking and she is waiting. The time gives them space to build themselves up for the visit, I suppose.
Anyway this companion book, since it’s not really a sequel, is about the burden of guilt Queenie has been carrying since leaving Kingsbridge 20 years ago. The novel is her letter to Harold about her recollections of first seeing him, dancing to himself under falling snow, and then meeting in the canteen at the brewery. She mentions, often, that Harold always remarks to everyone that they first met in the stationery cupboard. Miss Queenie Hennessy, however, was balling her eyes out so perhaps she’d rather remember it as the canteen. No matter. The “where” is the least of her deathbed worries.
Instead it’s that she met, danced with, and became friends with Harold’s son and never said a word about it to Harold. More than that, Harold’s son David stole money from her, along with her love poems and egg whisk. The egg whisk being the most irritating item to go astray. She lent David books, let him sleep on her couch, gave him money and offered up friendly advice about staying in touch with his parents. But David was as troubled as he was troubling.
Despite Queenie’s efforts to befriend him, David lied to her, mocked her, and eventually disappeared. His sudden death put Queenie on the spot. She couldn’t confess. She couldn’t tell Harold about her involvement with David because she feared the betrayal would be too great. She ran away then, but now she’s determined to say the things she wished she’d said then.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is her declaration of love and her confession. If Harold Fry’s pace is slow, Rachel Joyce’s writing just clips along at a good measure, which makes this 300-pager feel like a zippy read.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Book Prize. Read them both, why not.
The Miniaturist: “There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…” When the newly married Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam on a brisk autumn day in 1686 she is expecting to be warmly embraced into her husband’s household. Johannes Brandt is a wealthy merchant trader who is well respected, and Amsterdam is a glittery new start for Nella who comes from the country with a suitcase and her ancient, respected Oortman name. She soon discovers that her family name is likely the only reason she is there. Johannes’ sister Marin is a younger version of Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess, and she certainly runs the household, not a role Nella the new wife is going to assume.
Johannes is kind, but mostly away travellling, and his affections, when home are showered on his dogs, not Nella. The one gift he presents to her is a cabinet-sized replica of their home. Nella finds a miniaturist to furnish the rooms but, as cryptic package after package arrives, Nella’s wonderment shifts to eerie suspension. The miniatures of the household are exact replicas of the furniture and family members, and they are lovely at first. But then unrequested items like a small cradle arrive. It’s like the miniaturist knows the family’s deepest desires and secrets.
When Johannes’ favourite dog is killed and a long-time servant disappears, the artistry seems to turn to witchcraft. Nella is left wondering if the packages are benign predictions of the future or warnings of things to come. The whole experience is all the more alarming given that Nella is living in Amsterdam at a repressively pious time: puppets are banned, and even man-shaped gingerbread is forbidden. But false idols end up being the least of her concerns when Johannes is betrayed by a friend and arrested.
The Miniaturist is a beautifully written fairy tale with all the witchcraft and sugar plums you could possibly want. It’s beguiling. Fans of the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern will enjoy this story. I think readers of historical fiction, Sarah Waters or Markus Zusak (The Book Thief) will like it too.
This shocking and disturbing account of a journalist’s capture and torture in Somalia in 2008 was one of the most celebrated books of 2013, making the Globe 100 and hitting all the notable lists. A House in the Sky reads like a novel, which allows the reader to step away from the narrative a little bit and pretend that this is a fictionalization (you need this survival technique to make it through the book). The strength of the harrowing adventure is in the authors’ ability to slam the reader back into reality at just the right moment.
Here’s the general rundown: Amanda Lindhout grows up in Red Deer, moves to Calgary, works as a cocktail waitress and raises enough money to travel the world. She’s got the travel bug and moves quickly beyond the minor inconveniences of the backpacker lifestyle and into the major challenges of being a fledgling journalist in Iraq then Somalia. Her solo travels across Sudan, Syria and Pakistan do not prepare her for the full-blown war in Somalia or for the captivating power Osama Bin Laden will have on Somali militant groups. She’s not safe the second she lands and by day four she has been abducted along with a photojournalist from Australia. The two are held captive for 15 months, and Amanda is starved, raped, beaten and tortured. Initially the violence is moderate, a way to show who’s boss, but as the months drag on and the families refuse to pay the ransom demands, life gets much, much harder.
The journey is unimaginable. Amanda’s fortitude is amazing. And I never, ever want to read this kind of story again and think “well, they chose to go there.” The bigger question is “why the hell do people do this to each other?” The answer is money. And that is a very sad answer.
Amanda’s story is certainly about personal mistakes and wrong turns but it’s also a reminder that the stories we hear on the news about journalists who are captured, tortured and sometimes beheaded on camera are just one small fraction of the madness going on. There is a deeper story about survival and sacrifice, both for the captors and the captives.
Sweeney Todd meets Frankenstein in this romp through the underbelly of London, 1816, when grave-robbers are digging up bodies and selling them on the sly to anatomists and surgeons eager to understand to inner workings of the body and that fine line between the living and the dead.
Will Starling by Ian Weir opens with a macabre scene. The great, and godlike, Dionysus Atherton stands in a public square waiting for the hangman to do his business. “Dionysus Atherton consulted his timepiece, and made a note: the subject dropped at one minute past eight ... All movement finally ceased at 8:48, and death was pronounced at two minutes past nine.” Such are the interests of surgeons, or rather this surgeon in particular who is keen on chasing life to its outer reaches in hopes that science can pull back the subject from death’s icy grip. Once they cut down the body, can Dionysus Atherton secretly bring it back to life?
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley hasn’t yet written Frankenstein but resurrection is in the air.
Atherton, although a colourful figure, is not the protagonist, we leave that role to Will Starling, who works for a rival surgeon and is endowed with the gift of gab. What follows is “the reckoning of WM. Starling, Esq., a Foundling, concerning Monstrous Crimes and Infernal Aspirations, with Perpetrators Named and Shrouded Infamies disclosed to Light of Day, as set down by his Own Hand in this year 1816.”
Author Ian Weir, like in his debut novel, the acclaimed Daniel O’Thunder, deftly crafts a historical tale of twists and turns, with some pot boiler elements, and huge literary merit. This is a fun read for anyone who loves a good story, plus there’s some great slang and a few useful etymology points you can use at upcoming holiday parties.
Will Starling’s narrative reminds me a bit of Sherlock’s Dr. Watson, but Will is much more gossipy, into the ladies and not above boasting about himself and roasting his friends and family.
Published by Goose Lane Editions, Will Starling should be easy to find on all the “Must Read” tables in bookstores.
If you liked Cataract City by Craig Davidson, The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon or The Harem Midwife and The Midwife of Venice, then you’ll like this book too, especially since all these authors have lovingly provided jacket cover quotes. “Crackerjack novel ... no one else in Canada today writes like Ian Weir ... his characters are as engaging as the Artful Dodger or Fagin or Martin Chuzzlewit.”
Louise Penny is one of those mystery writers whose works I can’t put down. I would say her Inspector Gamache series is a Canadian version of the British detective drama Foyle’s War, but set in contemporary Quebec. Chief Inspector Gamache of Homicide for the Sûreté du Québec is on the far side of middle age, a solid man both in stature and personal fortitude, and he is good and kind. The series is the right mix of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marpole and CSI.
I started reading the series with book #7, A Trick of Light and was hooked. The Beautiful Mystery was by far one of the most beautiful mysteries I’ve ever read. Each book in the series introduces readers to a tucked away corner of Quebec (sometimes a real place and often a fictionalized version of a real place) set in contrast to the tranquility of Three Pines, a small village outside of Montreal that is not on the map and without cell service. It’s the Miss Marpole component with quirky small-town characters who are a microcosm of the world at large but also who are living in a very special place, maybe even a magical place in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez kind of way.
With The Beautiful Mystery, the location was the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer. Although they have taken a vow of silence, the monks are world-famous for their glorious chants. Gamache is called to the scene when the renowned choir director is murdered. The Vancouver International Writers Festival put on an amazing author event with Penny and Gregorian chanters recently so I was very excited to get a chance to attend this year’s author event.
Although there was no choir, Louise Penny was in fine spirits and instead of reading from her book, which of course would be a tricky feat if you didn’t want to reveal spoilers, she talked about herself, her writing process, how the Inspector Gamache series began, her first publishing contract, meeting her agent in a strange twist of fate and all the wonderful fans and “family” that have developed as a result of the books. It was like meeting a famous relative. She was lively and gracious and held the conversation without being full of herself. No wonder she can write a character like Gamache who is the embodiment of kindness and dignity.
One of the things I like about Louise Penny is the Acknowledgements come at the beginning of her book vs. tucked away at the end. It’s like how film credits used to appear in the opening sequence of a movie. Things that are meant to be read! She is very faltering of her agents, publishers and early readers, including the fine folks at Raincoast Books, where I used to work. It’s fun to see their names in print, especially when you know how much goes into making an author #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, or even getting on a bestseller list at all. (Of course, you need good writing, but it takes a village to bring the book up.)
As a former CBC radio host, Penny is incredibly well spoken. She has the gift of comedic timing and she takes pleasure in sharing her stories with fans. We were 700+ at the event in Vancouver, the last on what sounded like a loooong tour. Saving the best house for last? Anyway, she jokingly said she was taking “the long way home,” which is the title of book #10 in the series.
After an absolutely riveting book #9, How the Light Gets In, Penny introduces us to the now retired, former Chief Inspector of Homicide, Armand Gamache, who is living in the small village of Three Pines. Has he found peace away from the front line of the police, away from the dead bodies, away from the corruption that forced him into retirement? Maybe.
Gamache’s spirits are dampened but he’s not disheartened. He’s hurt physically but not beyond repair. The test of this comes when his neighbour Clara Morrow asks for help in finding her estranged husband Peter. The Morrows are well known Quebec artists but jealousy and fame has come between them. It’s a trial separation of one year, but Peter fails to return. He’s withdrawn $3000 from his bank account months ago and hasn’t been seen since. As much as Clara believes he’s missing because something is emotionally wrong, Gamache knows that it’s more likely physical.
In many ways this is a transition book. Our heralded Chief Inspector Gamache no longer holds that title. He’s been put out to pasture and that is always different than choosing to retire. What will happen to him? To the series? This book isn’t the answer to that, but we do get a crackerjack missing person’s mystery with all the tricky police work required to trace a person who doesn’t want to be found. Plus there’s the trials and tribulations of the art world, and the evocative rural Quebec settings. Plus the buttery croissants of the bakery in Tree Pines, which are worthy of mention because Penny makes me want to eat one every time she writes about them. Maybe the Gamache series is over and she’s going into food writing?
Or perhaps she’ll be a therapist. Each of the Inspector Gamache books present the discord in the apparent harmony. There’s a murder. There’s jealousy or rage. There’s double crossings. There’s hurt, both small crimes of the heart and big crimes against the law. And often it’s not about premeditated actions. Something breaks the silence. Or lots of small things break along the way. Given that Penny’s audience at the Vancouver International Writers Festival event last week were middle-aged, retirement-ready women and men, I think the book might be therapy for us. How do you not feel pushed into something? How do you value the gifts you have right under your nose vs. seeking solace elsewhere? How do you find creativity and inspiration when you’ve lost it? Whatever way you dice those tomatoes, the 10th books in the series, A Long Way Home, is good for many reasons.
The Light of Amsterdam by David Park
A novel that often reads like interwoven short stories about misunderstandings and miscommunication. A December flight from Belfast to Amsterdam brings together the otherwise unconnected characters of this drama. We have a father and teenage son who are at odds, a single-mother and a spoiled daughter on her hen party (dippy girlfriends in tow), and an almost-retired couple who are losing touch with each other. The trip to Amsterdam changes them all for better or worst. Author David Park has written 7 books, including the hugely acclaimed The Truth Commissioner. I think Darren will like this novel. The book has a very European feel to it, complete with Irish slang and descriptions of Amsterdam’s nooks and crannies.
The ink was black, the paper the same shade of blue as a bird’s egg he had found a week before. In their balanced elegance the capital G and B mirrored each other. Unlike most of the soccer signatures he collected which were largely indecipherable hieroglyphics — the bored scribbles of fleeing stars — this name was readable and perfectly formed.
The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper
A thrilling, and terrifying read, with lots of Milton’s Paradise Lost insights for the book nerds. A major departure for the bestselling author of Lost Girls, The Demonologist has the same literary prowess as Pyper’s other novels but is more like a literary version of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Professor Ullman is a world-renowned expert in Milton’s Paradise Lost. He’s a scholar but not a believer, until he witnesses demonic acts with his own eyes, including the possession of his daughter. An advance copy crossed my desk in early 2013 but since I was pregnant at the time, I waited until now to dip into the shadows of this book. I recommend it for Kiley who said she was looking for page-turner summer read. This is Canadian, literary, and creepy-crawly.
The rows of faces. Younger and younger each term. Of course, this is only me getting older among the freshmen who come and go, an illusion, like looking out the rear window of a car and seeing the landscape run away from you instead of you running from it.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Winner of the Man Booker Prize. Add this to the classic school-boy novel list. Four boys meet during their formative years at school. One boy standout. One boy dies. One boy, now grownup, tells the tale. Barnes’ novels are so smart that they make me feel smart. This is a bit of a snobby book and I loved it. In some ways it reminds me of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies in that the reader must beware of an unconsciously unreliable narrator. I’m afraid to recommend this one for fear of identifying the snobby readers among us, but you know who you are.
I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.
This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.
All the Broken Things is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read. Since the book club members get a say in what we read, I’m predisposed to like the books we pick and All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is no exception. It’s well written, the story is interesting, the characters are true characters and parts of the book are stuck in my mind.
All the Broken Things is about a Vietnamese family who moves to Canada in the early 80s. They are suffering in various ways from Agent Orange. The father died on the boat. The mother has sores that she keeps from the children, the youngest was born deformed and the boy Bo is mentally scarred by the experience. Bo oscillates between fight or flight and after one particular bout with a boy named Ernie, he’s picked up by Gerry who’s working the circus circuit and is looking for a bear wrestler. No seriously.
Although the book is set in 1984, Kuitenbrouwer mentions in the introduction that bear wrestling was a fixture in Ontario sideshows until 1976 and she’s simply shifted the timeframe to suit the story.
Bo joins the circus and the rest of the novel is about the tension of two captive bears, a boy who feels like a captive, the atrocity of war and circus Freak Shows. It’s strange and beautiful at once. The majesty of the bear, the hilarity of her on a bike. The beauty of Bo’s mother, the sullen, drunk. Orange the sister, Agent Orange.
I’m looking forward to what my fellow Book Club members have to say about the novel.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love was The Afterword Reading Society book club selection for Nov 26. I stupidly, and for a second time in a row, was not my usual 100% and I missed submitting my information. That said, my untimeliness in no way represents how much I enjoyed this book, nor how much I appreciate receiving a copy of this fine novel.
Alma Whittaker, born Jan 5, 1800, bears witness to the vast changes taking place in science, religion, commerce and class, all without leaving her home White Acre. Ok, she does leave near the end of her life, but what leads her to that point is such a sweeping tale of botany, early childhood education, colonization through cultivation of plants for medicine and food, charity (misplaced or not) and a family lineage that is fearsome in its tenacity. The story is told through Alma’s interactions with a number of visitors who come to White Acre to meet with Alma’s father Henry Whittaker. Henry Whittaker made his fortune travelling the seas as a young lad on behalf of Joseph Banks and the Kew Gardens. He was a swift learner and had few scruples so he quickly used his knowledge of botany and commerce to his advantage. When the time was right, he picked a wife, moved to America, set up a partnership for a profitable pharmaceutical company and continued to add pennies to his pockets through his expeditions.
The story moves from Henry’s travels to London to Peru to Philadelphia, then follows Alma’s trek to Tahiti and Amsterdam. There are beautiful descriptions of orchids, mosses and other botanicals. There’s adventure on the high seas, a retracing of human history, Darwin’s theories of evolution, and the push by abolitionists and adventurers to reconsider the world.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It reminds me of Anna Pavord’s The Tulip, which was a nonfiction look at the cultural baggage this bulb brings with it. The Signature of All Things: A Novel is The Tulip’s fictional counterpart.