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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Book Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard is one of my favourite plays, in part because I had to study the hell out of it in unversity and in part because it is one of the first dates that James and I had.

I was excited to see Stoppard’s new play Rock ‘n’ Roll is now published. Rock ‘n’ Roll premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in June 2006.

The cover is a very striking yellow, and the edition that I have includes an introduction from Stoppard. I find the author introductions to plays most fascinating. When I was in school I hated reading any of the extra bits, but now I’m much more interested in the context for the story, what references the author is trying to make, what he or she hopes the reader gets out of the text. The introduction to Rock ‘n’ Roll doesn’t disappoint, and it is a good recap of what was going on in Prague and Cambridge from 1968 to 1990, more directly what effect the Communist regime was having on musicians, philosophers and students.

In case you don’t know Tom Stoppard, he was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 and moved to England as a child in 1946.

The Amazon copy says:
Catapulted into the front ranks of modern playwrights overnight when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead opened in London in 1967, he has become recognized as a contemporary comic master, the brilliantly acclaimed author of The Real Inspector Hound, Enter a Free Man, Albert’s Bridge, After Magritte, Travesties, Dirty Linen, Jumpers, New-Found-Land, Night and Day, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Artist Descending a Staircase, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, Arcadia, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia (Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage), and Rock ‘n’ Roll. He has also written a number of screenplays, including The Romantic Englishwoman, Despair, and Brazil.

Rock ‘n’ Roll highlights the moments of friendship and tension between Jan and Max. Jan is a lecturer at Cambridge who returns to Prague just as the Soviet tanks are rolling into the city. He’s a music fan and in addition to a brief history of Czechoslovakia, you get a brief history of The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Lennon, Andy Warhol, and Frank Zappa. Max is a Marxist philosopher with a free-spirited daughter and a Sapphic philosopher wife who is dying from cancer.  Over a 20-year period Rock ‘n’ Roll offers little windows into Jan and Max’s acceptance and resistance to the Communist regime.

The remarkable thing about the play is that it’s heavy in a light way. There’s a sense of bouyancy and humour. In many ways it reminds me of Chekov’s plays, but without the dark, foreboding sense that, as James says, “it’s a godless world and we’re all going to die.”

Rock ‘n’ Roll—a new play by Tom Stoppard—read more on Amazon.ca

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Book Review: Audrey Hepburn: The Paramount Years

Audrey Hepburn: The Paramount Years by Tony Nourmand (published by Chronicle Books) is a beautiful book of photos and essays on Audrey in front of the camera and behind the scenes. In addition to the photos, there’s lots of great images from the movie posters.

Watch my video review on YouTube.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Book Review: The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark

Clare Clark is the author of two very fine novels, both of which deal with elements of the underground and unsavoury human behaviour. Her first novel The Great Stink is set in Victorian England, more specifically in the labyrinthine London sewer system. Hence the great stink. But Clare’s writing far from stinks, it is tight and interesting.

Yes, The Great Stink is a historical novel, but not one with a familiar setting. The Great Stink deals with a sewer engineer, William May, and the solstice his finds in cutting himself in the solitude of the sewers. That is until a murder is committed in the underground and he is implicated.

See what I mean? Underground and unsavoury.

Don’t be dismayed by the setting though, the details of the sewer structures, their repairs and the times of Victorian England are in perfect harmony with the strange and complex story of William May.

Not only do I highly recommend The Great Stink, I’m a fan of Clare’s latest novel, The Nature of Monsters.

In 1718, pregnant Eliza Tally is packed off to London. She is to work as a maid for apothecary Grayson Black, have the child or get rid of it, and do so while protecting the perception of her own virtue and the good name of the father of the child. What transpires instead is a tragic and twisted tale of scientific experimentation on mothers and unborn children. Eliza and a second maid, Mary, are psychologically tortured by the apothecary and his wife in hopes that they will bear monsters instead of healthy babies.

Eighteenth-century England is a time of deep interest in science, medicine and literature, but it is also a time of home remedies and superstitions. A pregnant woman caught in a fire can expect her child to be born with a red birthmark. If a hare runs across a pregnant woman’s path she can expect the child to be marked by the animal—perhaps it was a hare that created half-moon Mary.

Half-there or not, Mary charms Eliza, who discovers the apothecary’s goal and is driven to save Mary. It is too late for her own child.

Both novels are visceral. There is the putrid smell of the sewers in The Great Stink, the descriptions of cutting and the horrors of murder. In The Nature of Monsters it is the monsters of the novel—Grayson Black, his wife and the apothecary’s assistant, along with Eliza’s lover and her mother—who act as monsters. Betrayal and sacrifice for science are the elements of horror here.

Most horrifying to the reader are the descriptions of leeching, bleeding and opium use, which are counter to our modern-day understanding of medicine. We have 250 more years of discovery under our belt, and yet it is the many scientists of this time whose experiments inform today’s understanding of the mind and body. So it is the readers’ good fortune to have such an adept storyteller and historian weaving the tale of Eliza and Mary with the medical curiosities of the day.

I am a fan of Clare Clark. Both novels are great and I truly think readers of The Great Stink should seek out The Nature of Monsters and vice versa. My only caveat for newbies to Clare’s work is to be prepared for the world she transports you to, it is inevitably underground and unsavoury, in the best of ways.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The stories we tell ourselves and others is how we make sense of the world.

In searching for who said the above quote I came across, “Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn’t be human beings at all” (Philip Pullman).

I was searching for the origins of these quotes in reference to Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods. Gaiman has written a book of stories, myths and legends that collide and at times are at war.

American Gods are the gods who have come to America in the minds of its immigrants. Odin, Easter, Ganesh, Anansi. The ancient gods are the left to their own devices, poised to disappeared as they are pushed out by America’s newest gods. The ones we make sacrifices to daily: TV, big cars, the internet, warfare in the name of liberty, the pursuit of happiness.

Both worlds become Shadow’s world. Shadow, who did time for assaulting his bank-robbing partners for cheating him of his share of the proceeds, who is hired by Wednesday to rally the old gods against the new, and Shadow, who represents our look into the shadows. Gaiman asks us to take a closer look at the things that sometimes catch the corner of our eye. The things that we hope not to be true, but deeply believe to exist.

As our protagonist, it is Shadow’s job to make sense of this world. To tell the story. To sort things out. To know under which cup the nut is, into which hand the coin drops.

I enjoyed this book.

Anansi Boys is still my favourite, maybe because I read it first. But American Gods is one of those novels that will hang in my mind like a remembered dream.

I wanted to write about the power of narrative, how it informs what we do, how we understand ourselves, our country, our beliefs. Instead of telling you my story, why don’t you read this one.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Book Review: The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

Fans of historical fiction must seek out this book.

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox (McClelland & Stewart, 2006)

Michael Cox is a first-time author from Northamptonshire, UK. and he’s written the confession of Edward Glyver. Fictional? Of course ... or is it?

Indeed it is.

Cox, however, has used a literary technique that I quite like. He adds another layer to the story by introducing J. J. Antrobus as the editor of the work. This fictional character borders that fine line between fiction and nonfiction. Allowing readers to be momentarily disoriented—is this a novel or historical work?

The device also allows Cox’s “editor” to add footnotes to the text, informing the reader, in a non-intrusive way, of tidbits of information—some of it fictional and some of it historical. I won’t tell you the end of the novel, but this device does increase the reader’s understanding of the story, in particular the knowledge that this “confession” has been found and the “true” story revealed to future generations.

The writing reminds me of Dickens, or a Victorian-England writer of your choice. The book starts out at quite a clip, has a little lull early on, and then you pretty much roar through the 600 page tome.

“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper ...”

See, speedy intro.

You might wonder how the reader is to sympathize with a main character who kills an innocent man, just to make sure he’ll be able to do it when face to face with his enemy, but this is a story of deceit, murder and revenge. Edward Glyver is definitely one of the most likeable of the leading ladies and lads.

More about the book

Edward Glyver, book lover, scholar and murderer. He discovers upon the death of his mother that he is not who he’s been raised to believe he is. In a twist of circumstances, the boy who had him expelled from school is the man set to inherit Glyver’s intended fortune.

There’s drama, passion, strong writing, a captivating story, interesting characters, and all sorts of goodies.

The Meaning of Night website has a number features about the book and the author.

You can download Part One in PDF.

Having read the book already, I’m less interested in that aspect, however, I did enjoy Michael’s message to readers:

Thanks for visiting The Meaning of Night website.

I hope readers of the novel will enjoy browsing the images and other material gathered together on the site, and that they’ll provide some entertaining insights into the world of the novel’s narrator, Edward Glyver.

What I’ve tried to do in The Meaning of Night is to create an imagined world that’s solid and circumstantial, but which exists somewhere apart from the mundane and the everyday, a world in which extraordinary things happen, but which still remains plausible and somehow real.

The novel is also a homage to the primal power of story, and to the great storytellers I admire � people like Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rafael Sabatini. These are the writers I return to again and again, and who have inspired The Meaning of Night. If I’ve succeeded in creating a story that grips the reader from the first line to the last, then I’ll feel I’ve done my job.

So if you’ve already read the novel � thank you. If you haven’t, I hope you will soon.

Best wishes,

Michael Cox



Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Book Review: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly is a spin on Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Twelve-year-old David recently lost his mother and now his father is remarried. Rose is pregnant and when little Georgie comes along the family moves into Rose’s larger family home. David is a reader and a recluse so he’s only happy tucked away in his attic room, where he can read old books and be miserable and jealous of his father’s new-found happiness with Rose and Georgie.

One night David slips away into another world, one of fantasy and adventure. He must make his way to the King, who has a book that might be able to restore him to his world. Along the way there are a number of stories that build upon the Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

I enjoyed this book and thought it was well crafted, but I couldn’t get rid of the eerie sensation that I knew the plot and what was coming next. The Book of Lost Things would be a great read for teens and adults but I suspect that someone uninitiated into the world of Grimm’s would find it more exciting than someone who’s well-versed in fables and fairy tales.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Book Review: Forever in Blue

The fourth book in the Summer of the Sisterhood series, Forever in Blue, was the perfect way to spend my day at home.

I am sick with a head cold and the glare of the computer monitor is burning a hole in my already headachy head. This will be a short review.

I loved it.

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants is a great series by Ann Brashares. Lena, Carmen, Bridget and Tibby remind me of combinations of my own teenage friends. The books are a great way to get carried away in your own reminiscence as well as the story of the Septembers.

For anyone already a fan, this final book in the series will not disappoint you.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Book Review: Lisey’s Story Is One Great Bool

Stephen King has written a love story.

It’s also a story of sadness, loss and remembrance.

I started out not wanting to read the book alone and I finished wishing I was alone, instead of crying my eyes out on a plane full of people. But life is Ralph. I had the whole row to myself, every other seat was full yet none of the middles came to take my aisle seat. Such is the nonplausible reality of life, like when Ralph the dog returns home three years after he disappeared. Life is Ralph.

Ralph is only one of the little tidbits I’ve adopted from Lisey’s Story. It’s ripe with Landon-isms, maybe these are King-isms, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the narrative structure of Lisey’s Story is engaging. King switches between past and present so that you’re left all of a sudden wondering what world you are in. He makes you unease about shadows in the mirror, eating fruit after dark and basically taps into the darkest of superstitions.

Scott and Lisey Landon’s world is so well crafted in this book that it’s hard not to turn it into your own. To adopt Scott’s phrases, the same way Lisey has done. To feel like you as a reader are on a great bool hunt, you’re not just following the bool Scott has left for Lisey, you’re looking for the stations of the bool left for you by Stephen King.

You must be thinking what the smuck am I talking about?

A bool is a treasure hunt, a good joke, something fun, that ends in an RC, or a candy bar, or a story.

But Scott was a bit of a nutter himself. There are good bools, like the one he’s left for Lisey, and there are blood bools, like the ones his father introduced to him. Blood bools are bloodletting, when you cut to release the bad-gunky.

Lisey’s Story is about bools: blood bools and good bools.

But Lisey’s Story itself is a mothersmucking good bool.

And I have a bool for you, but you’ll have to wait until I set it up. Then we’ll play it. Hopefully later today or tomorrow.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Book Review: Third Class Superhero by Charles Yu

Third Class Superhero is the title story of this collection from Charles Yu, and it is by far my favourite.

Moisture Man receives a rejection letter.

Dear Applicant, not a good sign, the number of qualified candidates this year blah blah far exceeded the number of available blah.

Moisture Man has his good guy card, but he’s not even made it to third class superhero. Some of those he graduated with have climbed the ladder quickly and are already positioned to be first class superheroes.

It’s difficult to compete against the usual assortment of strong and beautiful superhero lads and lassies. The fireball shooters. The ice makers. The telepaths. The shapeshifters. Moisture Man is able to make two gallons of water from the moisture in the air and shoot it in a stream or a gentle mist. Or a ball. “Which is useful for water balloon fights, but not all that helpful when trying to stop Carnage and Mayhem from robbing a bank.”

Yu’s stories all full of anti-heroes, tragic figures and the absurd.

Disclaimer: Third Class Superhero is published by Harcourt and distributed by Raincoast in Canada so I have a vested interest in this book. But I can assure you that I’m not making up my enthusiasm for Yu.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Book Review: A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Everyone goes through a spot of bother at some point in life. Some of us go through a spot of bother daily—minor things that niggle away at our brain, things that make us doubt what we know or believe to be right. The four main characters in A Spot of Bother go through this hourly.

There’s George. Father of the family. Presumed (by himself only) to be dying of cancer. The doctor says it’s eczema.

There’s Jean. Mother of the family. Been having an affair for several years without complication. Now that George is retired (and fearing he is dying of cancer), he follows her around like a puppy. The foreign attention makes Jean paranoid that George has discovered her affair.

There’s Katie. Daughter. About to be married (for the second time). The family is “chuffed” that her choice of groom is Ray. Ray is dependable, great with her son Jacob, has money and a house they live in for free, but he’s not really their type—class wise, intelligence wise, they can’t really put their finger on it. Katie is also torn about why she’s marrying Ray. Is it to piss off her mother?

There’s Jamie. Gay as a three dollar bill—when he’s with his friends and with Katie—but straight-laced and rather private with his parents and their neighbours. Coming to Katy’s wedding with his boyfriend Tony will disturb the neighbours, cause his mother to hug Tony like a long-lost son (she knows Jamie is gay but doesn’t talk about it) and cause his father (who also knows Jamie’ is gay) to pat Tony on the back and treat him like an associate or sportsmate of Jamie’s.

A Spot of Bother indeed.

George goes crazy.
Jean calls it off with David.
Katie cancels the wedding.
Ray throws a dustbin.
Tony breaks up with Jamie.
Then I can’t tell you what happens because it will ruin the ending for you.

A Spot of Bother is as funny as his first book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

There’s a website for the book aspotofbotherbooks.com, which is also tres drole.

The opening image is an invitation to Katie and Ray’s wedding:

George and Jean Hall
Invite you to the (second) wedding of their (tempestuous, stubborn and ferociously tempered) daughter

who plans to wed

(an inappropriate hulk with “strangler hands”) on

September 5, 2006

By which time ... George, who is losing his mind as politely as he can, and Jean, who is shagging George’s ex-colleague, and Jamie, their gay son who cannot commit to his lover by inviting him to the wedding, and Katie who fears she really doesn’t love Ray ... pray that their family madness proves to be nothing more than

a spot of bother.

Listen to an audio excerpt.

I enjoyed Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother very much, although I’m secretly pleased not to hear any more about Katie. She was a bad influence on my character. I shall try to be more like calm, dependable Ray from now on.



Sunday, March 19, 2006

Book Review of Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

I just finished reading an advance copy of Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow. It is by Faiza Guene, a child of Algerian immigrants, who grew up in the public housing projects of Pantin, outside Paris. This is her first book and I believe she wrote it as a teenager, she’s now in university.

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow was originally published in French and this is the translated version. There are a couple of references to North American TV that I hope are the author’s original references and not the translator’s attempt to Americanize it for a US audience. That aside, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow is a brilliant insight into the teenage mind, the mind of a girl who is bullied because of her not-right, bargain sale clothes, her learning skills, and her poverty. This isn’t just the story of an immigrant experience in the Paris projects, it’s the story of growing up and the displaced teenage years. I particularly enjoyed the Paris references though. The current student protests and the riots last summer make a little more sense to me—the volatility, the insecurity, the pressure of those on the fringe.

Laila Lalami of MoorishGirl.com reviewed it and said, “moving and irreverent, sad and funny, full of rage and intelligence. Her voice is fresh, and her book a delight.”

Here’s an excerpted quote from Amazon.ca
He thought I’d forged my mom’s name on the slip. How stupid is that? On this thing Mom just made a kind of squiggly shape on the page. That jerk didn’t even think about what he was saying, didn’t even ask himself why her signature might be weird. He’s one of those people who think illiteracy is like AIDS. It only exists in Africa.
—from Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

I really like the cover of this book, check it out on Amazon.ca.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Book Review of Daniel Isn’t Talking

Daniel Isn't TalkingI’ve just finished reading Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Leimbach. There are lots of funny moments, educational moments, which I also enjoyed, and some craziness. I was initially quite skeptical about this book. The title is great, the cover is great (different cover on Amazon.ca—the version here, which I prefer, is the advance copy so we’ll have to wait to see the final one). I was skeptical because I seem to have encountered a lot of autism books lately. Each was fantastically well written and interesting.

Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins. A engaging portrait of his autistic son.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. Temple is autistic and (I think) has a PhD in animal science. The book is how to use autism to understand animal behaviour.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. A very funny novel about an autistic boy trying to solve the mystery of a murdered dog.

I was skeptical because I did not think Daniel Isn’t Talking was going to stand up to these titles. It does and doesn’t. Daniel Isn’t Talking is well written and by the midway point I did appreciate the characters, but at the beginning I just thought why am I reading about this crazy mother. And she stayed crazy through the book.

I didn’t like Melanie Marsh, Daniel’s mother. She is insecure, over protective of her children, in need of more than a little therapy, and she is driven to further madness when her son is diagnosed with autism. It is at the point of diagnosis where my sentiments about Melanie shifted slightly. She struggles and fights for her son, and I appreciated her tenacity and strength. She doesn’t take the “this is how things are going to be” diagnosis. She looks for alternative ways to help Daniel along. I still found her annoyingly insecure. I like strong willed characters. Her daughter Emily was my favourite character, as were Daniel and Andy (the Irish fellow Melanie eventually hires to help Daniel).

Overall, here’s my plug for the book:
Daniel Isn’t Talking is a comic, yet serious novel. It is as funny as Three Men and a Baby, but as serious as a self-help workbook. Melanie Marsh finds herself as an American in London with a stuck up, absent husband, a genius daughter and a recently diagnosed autistic son. Daniel Isn’t Talking is about stray nappies, misguided families, and the British stiff upper lip. It is also about a boy clearing his own path through life, and his mother’s struggle to show him the way.

Daniel Isn’t Talking should be in stores in April. As part of the McClelland and Stewart 100 Readers Club, I got to read the advance copy.