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.
My brother and I were complaining recently about how hard it is to find some of the children’s books we grew up with and consider classics. Is this what happens when you have kids? You want to re-live your own childhood through their eyes? There are a few that are easy to find. The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are, for example. And there are 5 children’s books turning 50 this year, which means they are readily available too. But they are definitely for older kids so they remain on the shelf. I’ll list them below then my compilation of FlashWolfe’s favourite titles at 18 months.
Celebrating 50 Years
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car by Ian Fleming
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.
Steven Galloway’s Houdini is as stageworthy as the man himself. And Martin Strauss, the man who killed Houdini, is his own elusive character. The Confabulist is a great story about magic, illusion, and escape artists.
I’m a fan of Steven Galloway so in many ways I felt predisposed to liking The Confabulist. I found it as page-turning as I remember Finnie Walsh being, on par topic wise with Ascension, and the style of writing as intriguing as The Cellist of Sarajevo.
Having recently read Bruce MacNab’s nonfiction account of Houdini and Bess’ tour of the Maritimes in The Metamorphosis, a lot of the Houdini stories seemed very familiar to me. But that’s the wonderful thing about celebrities. The general public can revel in thinking we know a lot about a person who quite often portrays a public persona that is quite different than the private one.
What I love about Galloway’s novel is that fiction lets us speculate more freely about the private persona.
Houdini was a great showman and certainly understood marketing and publicity. He was one of the most photographed men of his time and even though he died in 1926 (the first time *wink*) I feel like I’ve seen him perform.
Houdini and Magic
The famous and infamous are always fascinating, especially entertainers. Frank Sinatra, for example, is so lauded but also many say ol’ blue eyes wasn’t a nice guy. These men at the top of their game need such an ego to perform, I’m sure that if they don’t start out nasty, as Julia says, they develop that as a coping mechanism. What I like about Galloway’s version of Houdini is that he gives us the entertainer and a version of the man behind the scenes. Both are inventions.
Houdini invented himself: the name, the act, everything. And that’s the great American promise, that you can come from nothing and build your fortune. What a perfect illusion.
Speaking of invention and illusions, there’s something uncanny about Houdini. His life is a lovely dichotomy. He spent 26 years in the 19th century with horse and buggy, telegrams and struggling to make a name for himself and then 26 years in the 20th century with automobiles, telephones, radio and riches and celebrity.
The technological advances alone must have seemed like magic to people. Then for a magician as practiced in slight of hand and flexibility as Houdini to use that technology in his act, it must have been a double whammy for the audience. Oh, the great power! No wonder the spiritualists were excited.
Memory, Madness and Conspiracy Theories
I have a fondness for fools who speak the truth, everything from the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the jesters in Shakespearean plays. So Martin Strauss has my ear from the beginning of the novel when he introduces himself and the fact that the constant ringing of tinnitus can lead the afflicted, not that he is, to madness and suicide. What an opening!
Speaking of opening, the epigraph is from Aldous Huxley, “Every man’s memory is his private literature.” The more I thought about that, the more interested I became in Martin. Houdini is his own creation. He’s telling himself stories about who he is. So is Martin.
In the grocery store parking lot, Martin can’t unlock the door to his car. That’s because it’s not his car. Indeed, he’s never owned a green Chevrolet yet he has a clear memory of pulling into the lot and parking that particular car. He says that he tries to dismiss these small incidents but that they come with a memory, a recollection that he knows is false but which seems real.
Sometimes we tell stories that we makeup about ourselves. I’ve experienced that with jokes. A funny incident happened to me and one night at a party, my husband retold the story as if it happened to him! Well, he said, it sounds better in the first person. Houdini has showmanship as the reason behind his stories (as well as affairs that he wants to protect Bess from), but why does Martin fabricate his identity? Do we tell these stories and alter our memories because of something we are proud of or because of something we are ashamed of, or likely both?
When it comes to conspiracies, Houdini seems both proud of and ashamed of his participation with the CIA. The mystery and intrigue and prestige that is awarded him plays into the persona he’s creating, and yet it comes with its own faults and secrets that can’t be shared.
I don’t want to spoil the mystery and intrigue of Martin’s character, but there are so many great quotes so I’ll try to choose one that doesn’t reveal too much. He’s talking to Alice about confabulations and why certain false memories are so persistent and he says, “nothing is in the past for me. Because I remember it in the present, it’s in my head right now, though it’s always reconstructed. And reconstructions can’t be trusted. I can’t be trusted. None of us can.”
I love characters who warn us poor readers not to believe them.
The female characters in The Confabulist really have supporting roles to our two stars, Houdini and Martin Strauss. In the case of Houdini, it’s steadfast Bess who knows Harry’s signs both on stage and off. He trusts Bess above all others and it’s Bess who sticks with him. She seems secondary both to the act and to the story Galloway is telling. For Martin, the girl is Clara but he mistrusts her love and doesn’t stick with her. Clara is also secondary to the act of Martin punching Houdini on that ill-fated night in Montreal. Then there’s Alice, who is the audience for the story that Martin is telling about his encounter with Houdini and the events that led to him killing Houdini, twice.
There are similarities though too. Both men idolize their mothers. There are two beautiful scenes in the novel about the death of a mother. The first is Houdini saying farewell to his mother when he sets sail for Europe, and the grief he experiences upon learning of her death shortly after. The second is Martin consoling Alice when he learns that her mother is dead. “Being a parent is a monumental thing. You shape reality for another person. You cannot be an illusion … If you have done a good job, what remains is the part of you that was magical.” I thought that was a lovely thought but also curious because “if you have done a bad job, or no job at all, what remains of you is proof that the world is an unfeeling place.”
Both men idolize their mothers, and those mothers appear magical to them, but they also treat the world as if it is an unfeeling place. They are mistrusting of the outside world, they have one-night affairs, and they have illusions and disillusions about politics, women, and life in general. These are strange men and they make for interesting characters, which is perhaps why the women in the novel don’t take centre stage.
Loved the book.
The Confabulist by Steven Galloway
Published by Knopf
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.
Well, Perfect by Rachel Joyce is a perfectly sad little book. Perhaps sad isn’t the best word, morosely melancholic?
Perfect opens in June 1972 with 11-year-old Byron worried about the addition of 2 seconds. Apparently the 2 seconds will be added to bring clocks back into line with the movement of the Earth. His best friend James has read about it in the paper and Byron can’t stop worrying about when those seconds will be added. “It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening.” Indeed!
What does happen is that Byron stabs his wristwatch in front of his mother Diana while she’s driving and she hits a little girl. Diana doesn’t realize she’s had an accident until Byron’s anxiety about it spills out a month later. What transpires over the next 4 months is the undoing of this little family.
Byron and James plot a way to save Diana from persecution but instead drive her into the hands of the seemingly distraught (yet totally conniving) mother of the little girl.
I missed reading Rachel Joyce’s first novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry so I’ll have to it pick up.
Perfect is quirky, well written and, I suspect, just as great a book club selection as Harold Fry. If you like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time you’ll also like this title.
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.
Todd Babiak’s latest novel about a Canadian family accidentally caught up with mobsters in the south of France needs to be read with the lights on and the doors locked!
This is not earnest Canadiana. Babiak has written a spine-tingling, torture-ridden, political drama about the Kruse family who end up hunted by a Corsican crime family hired by a political party with connections throughout the country and in the gendarmerie.
Christopher and Evelyn Kruse bring their 4-year-old daughter Lily to South France in an attempt to rekindle their love. Instead they are driven apart when their daughter is hit and killed by a drunk driver who happens to be their landlord and the poster-boy candidate for the Front National party, Jean-Francois de Musset. The next morning Jean-Francois and his wife are found brutally murdered, Evelyn is on the run, and Christopher discovers Russian goons hired by a Corsican crime family are hunting his wife. He must draw on his security forces training and own investigative skills to find her before they do.
Come Barbarians is a fantastic thriller where South France is as much a character as Christopher himself; dark, mysterious and desperately seeking some form of stasis.
If you like The Wire tv series, you’ll like Come Barbarians.
I think I also enjoyed this novel because we were in South France last year and visited many of the towns mentioned in the book, including Vaison-la-romaine where the book opens.
If you live in Edmonton, U of A Press has released 17 copies of the book “into the wild”, one for each branch of the library. The idea is for people to take a photo of the book and share it on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest are all good spots), then leave the book somewhere new. Use the hashtags #epl100, #eplbooktravels to spread the message.
Regardless of where you live, the EPL is also allowing free downloads of the ebook (PDF, EPUB, and Kindle formats) from its website. EPL.ca/100/book. Look for the tabs with extra content, excerpts, contests, etc.
I don’t have any connection to Edmonton personally but I do love Babiak’s writing and he’s brought the EPL’s story to life through a series of stand-alone, yet interlinked chapters. The archival photos are wonderful and the story of the Library is really the story of a city.
I really liked this chapter “The Violinist with a Broom,” which is a story about one of the library’s janitors turned music director. Russian-born Nicholas Alexeef was hired by the library as a janitor in 1928 but nobody knew, or asked, about his training, which happened to be as a violinist. He was trained by a professor from the Paris Conservatory, took his examinations at the Petrograd Conservatory, and for one winter lived with one of the greatest teachers of the century, the Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, in Saint Petersburg. But a year before he could complete his studies, he was drawn into military service, fought on the anti-communist side, fled, and arrived in Canada in 1924. I won’t tell you how he became the music director because you should really just read the story. In fact, read the whole book! It’s filled with really interesting stories of the people of Edmonton and how the Library played a central role in the politics and development of the city.
Todd Babiak is the perfect author for this book because he’s a great writer (check out his new book Come Barbarians or my reviews of his previous books, The Garneau Block and The Book of Stanley), plus he lives in Edmonton and was a columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Did I mention, I love his writing?
Hey, my friend Annemarie wrote a book that I can now fully appreciate it. Healthy Mum, Happy Baby is part anecdote and part cookbook for moms who are breastfeeding.
First, I had no idea how hungry I would be all the time. The anecdotes from other moms were funny and reassuring. By 4 pm I am hangry (this is hungry + angry for those of you fortunate to not know this word). I was diligent about food and exercise before being pregnant, during pregnancy and I’ve been pretty good post pregnancy as well. Although really, I owe all my thanks to James. Annemarie’s book is for anyone who doesn’t have a “James” who cooks awesome food and slides healthy snacks across the table at the right times (being mindful of keeping his fingers out of the way).
Second, of course I am aware that my diet affects the baby’s diet. But as an exhausted new mom who is low on energy, making decisions is hard. Annemarie’s book offers some delicious meal options that make it easy to flip through and say, “ah yes, I’ll have that for dinner.” I appreciate the legend showing the prep and cook time for each recipe. I mostly flagged the 30 min or less recipes but I did drool fondly over the 60-min recipes while daydreaming about the days when I’ll have time to actually do some dinner prep.
Overall there are 35 recipes that don’t require exact measurement and will be tasty immediately or sometime later that evening when the baby has nodded off and you can still function to lift fork to mouth. Hands down, the list of healthy snacks is worthy of space on the fridge.
Also good, this book comes in whatever print or digital format works for you.
Healthy Mum, Happy Baby
How to Feed Yourself When You’re Breastfeeding Your Baby
by Annemarie Tempelman-Kluit
Published by Random House
Good job Annemarie! Thanks for this lovely, and timely gift.
I don’t normally review two books together but I do often have two books on the go. This time it was a fiction book and nonfiction book and I’ve never had such a pair. Amanda Leduc’s The Miracles of Ordinary Men is about a man who wakes up an angel and through a series of coincidences attempts to figure out God’s greater plan for him. Bruce MacNab’s The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini is about Harry Houdini’s Maritime tour in the years before he became a famous escape artist and all the coincidences between his fame and that tour.
In both we have a transformation from ordinary man to extraordinary being. We have magic. And we have the coincidence problem. (Aside: If you haven’t read Stephen Osborne’s The Coincidence Problem please do so!).
From the Foreword of The Metamorphosis
Harry Houdini died in 1926. By 1959 only three biographies detailing his life and legend had been published. Today, in 2012, there are literally hundreds of books about the great showman, and almost all of them share the same problem. They concentrate on the part of Houdini’s life when he was a star, one of the most well-known personalities of his time, a time when he maintained an almost daily relationship with the press. He was one of the most photographed men of his time.
The Metamorphosis looks at the time before the fame, when Houdini was travelling with his young wife who was also a performer and they were getting the barest of audiences. The book’s focus is 1891-1899, in particular a tour of Nova Scotia that Houdini and Bessie undertook in their second year of marriage, and it’s full of photos from those early years both of the Houdinis and of the locations where they performed. In short, it’s a fascinating read and Bruce MacNab’s research highlights all the small stepping stones that took Houdini from the Marco Magic Company all the way to the big time.
The first chapter of The Miracles of Ordinary Men is labeled Ten, and the reader goes backwards in chapter numbers but not necessarily time.
From Chapter Ten
Sam’s cat crumpled like paper under the truck’s wheel. He knelt down to touch her and then something like heat, some sudden shock of air, surged through his hands.
Suddenly she was breathing, blicking up at him through a mass of matted fur. Dead, and then not-dead, and his were the hands that had done it.
From there we follow Sam and Chickenhead (the cat) through the death of Sam’s mother, the reconnection of Sam with Father Jim (who can see the wings) and Sam’s eventual discovery of Timothy, who also has wings. Timothy has taken to the streets, not knowing how to cope with his transformation, and his sister Lilah becomes another connection to Sam.
The two storylines that intersect are that of Sam and Timothy/Lilah. Lilah, or rather Delilah, is a wandering soul who is dating an abusive, power hungry man who is also her boss. The Boss is a bit of a dark force who’s the counterbalance to the mediocre, weak angel that is Sam.
The novel is philosophical in its open-end questions about God’s plan, our time on earth and the role of evil. I can’t say it’s an uplifting read but what it lacks in optimism it makes up for in eloquency.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the New York Times bestselling author of American Wife and Prep, neither of which I’ve read so I was keen to get into Sisterland. I wouldn’t normally go for a book about twins and ESP because although I like magical realism and fantasy, I find things psychic abilities a little creepy. My imagination is too susceptible and maybe that’s why this novel is sort of mesmerizing.
The story is about twins Daisy and Violet who have ESP. Their “senses” help them know things like what a guy likes in a girl and they can sometimes see things like the name of a person who’s kidnapped a little boy. As little girls, the twins have fun playing games guessing at what the other is thinking, which creeps out their mom. As teens, they aren’t popular girls, twins were less common in the ‘70-90s, but they do become a little infamous when Daisy takes a chance and tells another girl that she has ESP. The other girl is a popular, rich girl who takes advantage of Daisy to win a boy but then betrays her to the school as a witch.
One of my favourite lines in the book is early on at page 67 in a section of dialogue between a substitute teacher doing roll call, Marisa the mean, popular girl and Daisy.
She took attendance by calling out our last names, and when she got to Shramm, I raised my hand and said, “Here.”
She looked again at the list. “There are two Shramms. You’re which one?”
“No,” Marisa said immediately. “She’s Witch Two.”
Out of context it can seem a bit slack stick but what I like about that line is that it sums up that caustic humour of teenagers. A less skilled writer would have made Marisa more of a caricature but instead she is craftily constructed.
From then on Daisy masks her senses and Vi embraces them. Daisy even changes her name in college in order to hide from the stories. She starts going by Kate instead, marries a nice sensible boy and has two kids. Violet on the other hand is a lesbian, psychic medium who predicts a massive earthquake and ends up on local, then national, tv broadcasting her predictions and stirring up old tensions between herself and Daisy/Kate.
Kate is of course mortified about the prediction and the publicity, has a run in with old Marisa, who is still chasing boys despite being in her late 30s now, and ends up making a ton of mistakes in her attempts to just be normal.
Between Kate and Violet, I think Vi is my favourite twin. Violet, the first born, who embraces her ESP and rocks the flowy shirts and birkenstocks, really puts the woo in woo-woo. And even though she’s worthy of many eye rolls, there’s something redeeming about her.
At the beginning of the novel I was cheering for Kate but by the end Vi was the champ. Sittenfeld’s set up of the dynamic between the twins and the what-if concerns about Vi’s earthquake prediction made Sisterland into a fun, summer read. The bit of a mystery kept me cruising through the book.
If you like Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, then you’ll like Sisterland. Both are about twins who are intensely attached to each other, emotionally removed from their parents and who possess some extraordinary abilities. Not to say that if you like a twin book, you’ll like another, but more so because Niffenegger and Sittenfeld are both great writers who turn these plotlines into well-written, page turners.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lanel is Neil Gaiman’s latest novel and it’s a melancholic little book about growing up, childhood, dreams and disappointments. It’s short but rich and reminds me of Coraline. Where Coraline was triumphant though, I’m not sure our unnamed narrator—a boy of 7—is. But I don’t want to spoil anything for you.
The epigraph from Maurice Sendak is a great 1-line summary of the novel: “I remember my own childhood vividly … I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”
What the boy knows is that he is a bit of an underling, getting beat up at school and bossed around by his older sister at home, but he’s comfortable. He has a little black kitten and a small room with a little yellow washbasin just his size. But those comforts disappear with the arrival of a lodger who runs over the cat, uses the room, and ultimately dies himself in a most unfortunate way. But instead of that incident being forgotten, our boy gets caught up in the magic that’s unleashed by the death. And that’s when he meets the Hempstock women: Old Mrs Hempstock, Ginny Hempstock (middle aged) and Lettie Hempstock (11 years old, but she’s been 11 for a very, very long time).
Three is a magic number, isn’t it? And the Hempstock women certainly know their magic. It’s old magic. Old magic used to bind things from the old world that have come across the ocean with them. Old magic used to cut and restitch the fabric of time. But all that magic has a price and the novel leaves us wondering if it was worth it. I won’t tell you what it is because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is worth the reading.
The World by Bill Gaston is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read and I’ve been enjoying re-discovering Gaston. I was first introduced to his work when I was at Raincoast and I’ve followed his career but haven’t really dipped into his books. Too bad I waited!
The World is both the title of this novel and the title of a novel in the book, written by Hal, one of the main characters. Hal has Alzheimer’s and is in a home and we don’t really get to his story until the final third of the book, but he is introduced early. The book begins with the sad life of Stuart Price who is a high-school shops teacher, recently retired. Stuart is split from his wife and has poured his energies into paying off his mortgage. Indeed he has just paid it off in a lump sum and, in burning the mortgage papers on his deck, burns the place down. Oh Stuart. To add insult to injury, he has forgotten to pay his insurance premium.
Stuart’s meltdown, or rather burndown, takes him on the road. Whether he’s running away or running to somewhere is questionable. He’s swiftly decided to drive his ancient Datsun from BC to Ontario in order to visit his long-lost friend Mel who is dying of cancer. It happens that his insurance company HQ is in Toronto and he wants to plead his case in person.
Stuart is hilarious, and a bit insane, so his third of the novel is pretty funny. The middle section begins with Mel bailing Stuart out of jail and continues from her perspective. It’s a bit dire in comparison to Stuart’s tragedy, but really it’s just another personal crisis from a different perspective. With Mel, we also finally meet Hal, author of The World which is about a leper colony on D’Arcy Island. Hal is quite the character and he and Stuart together are certainly a pair of looney tunes.
We’re going to be discussing Bill Gaston’s The World for the next couple of weeks in The Vancouver Sun so I’ll save my thoughts for that.