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McClelland & Stewart

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: The Measure of a Man by JJ Lee

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I recently read The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit as part of the Vancouver Sun Book Club and was deeply impressed with JJ Lee’s ability to weave his personal story with the history of menswear. In books where there are two parallel stories, I often find that they do run parallel and I favour one over the other, but here the two are interconnected in a way that moves both stories along nicely.

The Measure of a Man is great for women readers who are interested in a memoir about family relationships as well as curious about men’s fashion. JJ offers lots of little insights into why certain buttons are buttoned or not buttoned and where women go wrong in “helping” men with their wardrobe. And it’s great for men who might be drawn to the sartorial education provided in the pages but also curious about how the suit makes the man and how the anxieties of trying to measure up or measure yourself against your father are faced in this particular story.

The opening of this memoir is a great setup to the story. Perhaps it’s because JJ Lee is so practiced at telling this story. He tailored it first to be a radio documentary and also a series of talks, including this one I attended at Interesting Vancouver.

JJ Lee @Interesting Vancouver 2010 from Interesting Vancouver on Vimeo.

Just like the suit JJ is breaking down and restructuring, the memories of his father are like suit seams being sewn and ripped and sewn again.

The Meaning of a Man

As the suit has evolved over the last four centuries — moving from the tailcoat and morning coat (both short in the front and long in the back) to the long-skirted frock coat (imagine Abraham Lincoln) to the lounge suit (essentially our modern-day suit) — it has accumulated layers of meaning, signifying different things to different people at different times. The suit has baggage. It carries the weight of male history and shifting ideas of manhood and fatherhood, success and failure, class and beauty.

From birthday suit to funeral suit, Lee uses his father’s suit to talk about what makes a man, specifically what made his father who he is and what makes JJ Lee who he is today.

During our Vancouver Sun live chat on March 16, JJ said:

It’s a weird book in some ways. Many people see it a fashion book and others see it as a family memoir but I suppose my point was the sartorial lessons are part of the male relationship and that it has its echoes through history.

Early on in the story, JJ Lee introduces readers to his father, who was raised by grandparents in Sherbrooke, married young and became a successful restaurant owner. JJ’s father worked hard for his place in the world. “Even then he liked clothes and was searching for how clothes could make the man. I see his ambition.”

But things bottom out for the Lee family when JJ’s father starts drinking too much, starts abusing his wife and the children, and then loses the house after a series of failed business ventures.

As we get deeper into the book, Lee’s nerve to tackle the suit matches the determination he’s mustered to tackle the memories of his father. And they are not at all good.

I’ve burrowed the blade deep enough into the seam to begin cutting the threads, which offer the same meaty resistance as when I slide a knife through the joint of a chicken thigh. Inside I find more of the alarming spewing guts of the suit: thin wafters of synthetic material are stacked to make the shoulder pad.

The suit might look good to the non-tailor, but a true tailor can see its faults. The sloppiness. The falsities trumped up so that together they appear to be greater than they are. The suit offers a wonderful metaphor for JJ’s memories of his father.

But it’s not a dower read. For example, in cutting out the bad in the suit, JJ makes a novice mistake. He’s taken out the shoulder padding and restitched the sleeves to the suit only to discover, “my head looks enormous.”

There’s an absurdity to the childhood memories that needs to be massaged into something more mature, something less distorted.


The Scent of a Man

Scent plays a strong role in JJ’s story. The suit itself smells of vanilla, cigarettes, and sweat. JJ Lee describes having a visceral reaction, a flood of memory. Perhaps my interest in perfume sold me on Measure of a Man.

In A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman writes, ‘Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.’


On trying to gather pieces of knowledge and stitch them together, JJ says:

I will map its terrain; lapels, notches, side pockets, buttons, sleeves, die seams, and vents will be its features. Some I will alter. Others I will leave along. And maybe, like a construction crew trying to get a job done in Jerusalem, I will stumble upon the ruins of my father and they will tell me something about out downfall, the tumult he brought upon himself, our family, and me.

Lee is not cut out to be a tailor but he’s a good storyteller.

During his first foray as apprentice with Bill Wong of Modernize Tailors (still operating in Vancouver), JJ Lee is instructed to sew a set of parallel lines then turn the material around 90 degrees and stop the machine when he reaches a line. Bill quickly shoos JJ off the machine and in expert fashion writes “JJ Learn to Sew” in perfect cursive over-stitching. I love it.

Much of the sartorial education JJ shares with us in the book is on the history of the suit, the right way to wear a suit and the prominence or decline of particular suit designs.

For example, a true tailor will call the turning of the lapel from the inside out the “roll.” Done properly, labels don’t fold, they roll out, blooming like a flower petal. “They are wool labia opening out with an irresistible lushness”. It’s fascinating to think of the suit, with its start as a suit of armour, having a feminine opening, which is usually adorn with phallic shaped tie.

So lets talk about manly men! JJ recounts The Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 and how it was also a debut of The Beatles iconic suits. The strong diagonals of the lapels, the shirt collars, the narrow ties that matched the dynamism and energy of the music and the men themselves. JJ has a way of making fashion iconic just in his recollections of sartorial moments in history.

Midway through we’re introduced to a series of famous tailors, including David Wilkes, who is an anomaly because he went to school to be a tailor. Raised in Dartmouth, NS, David wanted to be a tailor since he was fourteen. He enrolled in Dalhousie’s costume design program then after graduating continued to apprentice through autodidactic means using manuscripts and works from as early as the 1700s. (Darren: Sounds like something you’d do.)

In addition, there’s Hedi Slimane who in 1997 became the head designer for Yves Saint Laurent’s ready-to-wear line for men called Rive Gauche and moved men’s fashion from the Armani cut (big and blousey in the front with the tight bottom in back) to the narrow shoulders and slimmed down cut of today.

And each of these tailors and suit designs play into JJ’s recollections of what was in his father’s wardrobe and how his father sized him up and found him wanting, and how JJ sized up his father and found him wanting as well.

What’s in the closet comes out in JJ’s tales of abuse at the hands of his drunken father but the memoir doesn’t end on a sour note. JJ uses architect Robert Venturi’s criticism of modern architecture in his 1966 work Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture to suggest that he too can adopt a “Both And” perspective. Venturi’s Both And phenomenon suggested that a building detail could be both good and awkward, big and little, closed and open, continuous and articulated ...

My father’s suit can be my Mannerist edifice. It will remain Both-And. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be something of my father that is also for me.

Suits are like bras

Part way through JJ’s explanation of the lost approach men take to the suit, I realized that this is much like approach many women take to bra shopping.

JJ reminisces about how a man used to take his a son to a tailor for his first suit. Through the fitting, the boy learned about the shape of lapels, the cut of the jacket, the collar, and what worked for him. Without this early lesson, he is lost to find his fit later in life.

Seems much like girls going for their first bra fitting. This was likewise a more formal affair than it is today, which is probably why so many women wear bras that are ill-fitting and, like a suit gone wrong, look terrible to the trained eye.

Stitching It All Together

As we near the end of the exploration of the suit, and fathers and sons, JJ realizes that the suit is what it is. That the suit can be Both And is an acceptance of his relationship with his father and an understanding that the measure of a man does not have to be against his father.

I like that the story ends with JJ Lee completing the suit. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, surely you too were hoping for a happy ending.

There is only the circle made by a tailor’s hand as he quietly pulls the thread that connects all the parts together.


A fantastic job, well done JJ Lee. Oh, and JJ says to watch for red jeans, they’re going to be all the rage.

 

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient was one of my favourite novels by Ondaatje. It helped that I studied it in English Lit because the movie adaption is really only one part of the many stories interwoven in that tale. It’s a masterpiece. But I suspect that it’s one of those books that people bought but never read. In the case of The Cat’s Table, we have a novel that is a much more accessible to read and definitely worth picking up.

In the early 1950s, 11-year-old Mynah (or Michael) boards a ship in Colombo bound for England. The Cat’s Table is his adventure on board, the characters who he meets, and later his adult understanding of that childhood time. Ondaatje has crafted a wonderful tale.

As I got into the car, it was explained to me that after I’d crossed the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, and gone through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, I would arrive one morning on a small pier in England and my mother would meet me there. It was to the magic or the scale of the journey that was of concern to me, but that detail of how my mother could know when exactly I would arrive in that other country.

And if she would be there.

What he doesn’t know is that he’ll befriend the heart-troubled Ramadhin or the exuberant Cassius. Nor does he know upon boarding about the shackled prisoner, the deaf girl or the circus.

It was not even eight o’clock when we crossed the border from First Class back to Tourist Class. We pretended to stagger with the roll of the ship. I had by now come to love the slow waltz of our vessel from side to side. And the fact that I was on my own, save for the distant Flavia Prins and Emily, was itself an adventure. I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius, and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task.

Whether it’s sneaking down to the boiler rooms, slipping into the life rafts, nabbing treats, or brazenly standing out in a storm, these three boys wreck havoc in the way only boys can. But this story is not just about discovering what they can get into, it’s about discovering who they are and what they mean to each other.

In many ways, it’s a story we all know. It’s one of going to camp for the summer and making friends, meeting people on a trip with whom you promise to stay in touch, or missing classmates who’ve come and gone. It’s about friendships made in a confined space or time. It’s about growing up and moving from childhood to adulthood. That’s what I mean by accessible. We share Mynah’s memories, even if they are not of the exact same space and time.

Watch for Michael Ondaatje at the Writers Festivals happening this fall. He’s worth seeing and the book is worth reading.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
Published by M&S
Available in hardcover, unabridged audio CD, unabridged audiobook download and eBook.
Canadian author

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Book Review: The Water Man’s Daughter by Emma Ruby-Sac

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Congratulations to Emma Ruby-Sach on her debut novel, The Water Man’s Daughter. I really enjoyed this mystery. I never think that I am a mystery reader, but there was something about this title in the M&S catalogue that caught my attention. I’m pretty sure it was the bright cover but the description made it sound more like a literary novel than a mystery. I wasn’t disappointed.

This murder mystery takes place in South Africa, and the murdered man is Peter Mathews, a Canadian business man whose company is responsible for the privatization of the water supply in Johannesburg. His murder takes place in one of the townships and is rather grisly.

Claire, his daughter, arrives from Canada hoping to find some answers about what happened. She is put in the care of Nomsulwa, a local activist who dug up the water company pipes only days before the murder. Nomsulwa is tasked with touring Claire about by Zembe Afrika, our third female lead. Zembe is a policewoman in the township and is struggling to balance her community sentiments with her work ambitions.

All three women are fascinating characters and The Water Man’s Daughter is such a great read because of that. Claire is struggling with understanding her personal relationship with her father and her objective understanding of the work he was doing in South Africa. Nomsulwa is struggling with her desire to hate Claire and her water company connections while sympathizing with Claire’s broken allusions of her father. And Zembe is stuck trying to protect those she can in the community while turning a blind eye to injustices that in the end serve the community.

Emma Ruby-Sachs certainly writes like she’s no stranger to publishing novels. The twists and turns had me going until the end.

Book Review: The Water Man’s Daughter by Emma Ruby-Sac

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Congratulations to Emma Ruby-Sach on her debut novel, The Water Man’s Daughter. I really enjoyed this mystery. I never think that I am a mystery reader, but there was something about this title in the M&S catalogue that caught my attention. I’m pretty sure it was the bright cover but the description made it sound more like a literary novel than a mystery. I wasn’t disappointed.

This murder mystery takes place in South Africa, and the murdered man is Peter Mathews, a Canadian business man whose company is responsible for the privatization of the water supply in Johannesburg. His murder takes place in one of the townships and is rather grisly.

Claire, his daughter, arrives from Canada hoping to find some answers about what happened. She is put in the care of Nomsulwa, a local activist who dug up the water company pipes only days before the murder. Nomsulwa is tasked with touring Claire about by Zembe Afrika, our third female lead. Zembe is a policewoman in the township and is struggling to balance her community sentiments with her work ambitions.

All three women are fascinating characters and The Water Man’s Daughter is such a great read because of that. Claire is struggling with understanding her personal relationship with her father and her objective understanding of the work he was doing in South Africa. Nomsulwa is struggling with her desire to hate Claire and her water company connections while sympathizing with Claire’s broken allusions of her father. And Zembe is stuck trying to protect those she can in the community while turning a blind eye to injustices that in the end serve the community.

Emma Ruby-Sachs certainly writes like she’s no stranger to publishing novels. The twists and turns had me going until the end.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Book Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is a lovely writer. She has written four bestselling novels: Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith and The Night Watch. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith were by far my favourites, and those rankings stand.

The Little Stranger is a dark, and maddeningly compelling, read. Set in post-World-War-I rural Warwickshire, the dumpy, semi-successful bachelor Dr. Faraday has the hots for plain-Jane, fallen-from-riches Caroline Ayres. It’s an Austen-esque affair with a Mary Shelley monster story as a plot driver.

The Austen Element: Dr. Faraday becomes interested in Caroline Ayres, or perhaps the status she represents (even though she’s poorer than a church mouse). Caroline is interested in Dr. Faraday as an exit route from her dire circumstances and family burdens. I won’t spoil the romance tale by telling you what happens here.

The Shelley Element: Hundreds Hall has been home to the Ayres family for centuries. It’s a grand mansion that’s crumbling without dignity. An eyesore, a money sinkhole and an emotional burden (how can you give up the family home even as it drags you down), the home has personality and character in ways that become hauntingly evident throughout the novel.

As sinister things occur to each family member, it is Dr. Faraday, our trusty narrator, who is left to rationalize the happenings. But is he so endearing? Is he an infallible narrator?

Again, I won’t spoil it by telling you my thoughts here. Instead I’ll say that although the narrative was eerie and formed a great literary suspense story, I found Dr. Faraday exasperating. Not enough to stop reading, but enough to feel like he was an unwanted guest at an afternoon tea party from which I couldn’t extract myself.

If you like Sarah Waters, definitely give this one a read. If you haven’t heard of her before, start with Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith, then make your way to this novel.


www.sarahwaters.com

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart in hardcover, paperback and ebook

 

Monday, March 16, 2009

SXSW: No Think for Old Publishers

New Think for Old Publishers panel at SXSW drew a lot of frustration from the crowd of book lovers and supporters.

The official description of the session was:

This is not a discussion of whether ebooks are killing treebooks, or whether it’s possible to get cozy with an Amazon Kindle. It’s about how participatory culture and the online world interact with good olde book publishing.Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, Deborah Schultz, and fellow panelists will share with the audience a variety of perspectives on what’s going right and what’s going wrong in publishing, assess success of recent forays into marketing digitally, digital publishing, and what books and blogs have to gain from one another. Penguin Group (USA), which houses some 40 plus imprints and publishes an extremely broad variety of physical and digital products everything from William Gibson’s first ebook in the 90’s to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (the source for HBO’s True Blood) is deeply involved in exploring ways that old and new media might better collaborate. Audience members are invited to speak up about what they think book publishers could/should be doing to better provide relevant information and content to blogs, websites, and online communities. Come tell old media what you want and how you want it.

Clay Shirky ITP
John Fagan   Mktg Dir,  Penguin Group (USA)
Deborah Schultz   Founder/Chief Catalyst,  deborahschultz.com
Peter Miller   Dir of Publicity,  Bloomsbury USA
Ivan Held   Pres GP Putnam’s Sons,  Penguin Group (USA)

They certainly told publishers what they think. The summation was “you suck at this is the biggest way possible.”

I think it’s unfair to attack the folks on that panel but as representatives of the industry they do have to go back to their houses and understand that they need to convey, not that bloggers are an unruly bunch, but that publishers need to get off their asses and get involved with social media. Enough is enough.

BookSquare says
If you’re going to hold a session called “New Think for Old Publishers”, you gotta come with some new thinking. Either that or tell the audience that it’s a research session…and the audience is supposed to bring the new thinking. Good idea, needed better execution. Nobody read the panel description to mean “we want the audience to tell us what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it”.

...

The publishing people on stage said, essentially, tell us what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it. You have 300 people who give up an hour of their lives to hear the cool things the traditional publishing business is doing…and you can ask them to consult on your business?

Watch a video of the panel here.

Other links to conversation about this panel:
Medialoper has a fairly neutral assessment of what unfolded.

Twitter stream of comments on this panel #sxswbp

Monique’s summary
What went wrong is this:
* Publishers have not listened to the crowd for a long time.
* The crowd is restless.
* Publishers wring their hands about the web.
* The crowd offers options publishers don’t like.
* Publishers weep into their hands.
* The crowd wants to help and offers other suggestions.
* Publishers act like deer in headlights.
* The crowd plows down publishers and reinvents the industry without them.

What this panel really came down to is that the wisdom of the crowds is not being tapped. The crowd is now sick and tired of trying to help people who won’t help themselves.

Hold me to this: I’m going to organize a panel in Vancouver. We’re going to create a model for publishing and marketing books. We’re going to move forward as an industry. Leaders will be identified. Roles will be assigned. If you’re not open to totally change everything you’re doing, then you are not ready for this revolution. Don’t come.

Who’s in?


UPDATES

Peter Miller Glibness. “Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Tips from a panelist who barely survived” in Publishers Weekly.
Read the article.

Michael Tamblyn of BookNet Canada on 6 Things That Revolutionize Publishing

Friday, August 24, 2007

Book Review: The Book of Stanley

The Book of Stanley by Todd Babiak is one of the funniest books I’ve read all year.

There’s something about books about God that really tickle me. I suppose it’s repressed anxiety from attending the Catholic Church as a kid.

Stanley Moss is an average man. He’s a retired florist, diagnosed with cancer. He’s a putterer and his wife’s the same. They live in Edmonton, across the way from a car dealership, and sometimes in the clear, summer afternoons they can hear the receptionist announcing calls over the PA. It’s the prairies.

So what happens to Stanley Moss? How does he become my hero and favourite character of 2007?

Like this.

Stanley is stricken by ... well, we’re not sure, but afterwards things are different. He’s different.

Stanley can hear what people are thinking. He can convince them of things. He can lift heavy objects. He can throw himself from a cliff.

He’s God.

But he’s also human in a way to which we can relate. Stanley’s nervous about his new self. He’s unsure of what to do. He wants to use his power for good, but he’s surrounded by bad. He makes decision by committee. He gets confused. He starts losing himself.

I think we have these worries whenever we take on new challenges and that’s what is great about Stanley. Stanley’s not a leader. The Book of Stan. Come on. But they do, people come in droves to hear what he has to say, to try to silence him, to try to follow his teachings. It’s a behemoth mess as far as his wife is concerned.

You have to love her for that.

The Book of Stanley is Canadian satire. It’s not British and definitely not American. It’s perfectly Canadian.

I’ve been telling people that The Book of Stanley is “Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets Michael Winter.”

Read the book and let me know if you agree.

Todd also has a smart ass blog at ToddBabiak.com, last I checked he was trying to replace Rabinovitch as president and CEO of CBC. He’s definitely an author to watch out for, I mean, watch.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Book Review: Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient, The Cinnamon Peeler’s Wife and Handwriting are the only Ondaatje books I’ve ever read. I enjoyed them. I like the lyrical nature of Ondaatje’s writing.

Divisadero  fits the bill perfectly. Ondaatje is telling two stories, a modern-day love story and a forgotten love story—I suppose both are forgotten in some ways.

The first story is Anna’s. In the 1970s in northern California, Anna lives with her sister and father on a farm. The hired hand, Cooper, is also part of the family. All three children, Anna, her sister and Coop, have lost their mothers. It’s a strange world. The mothering nature is missing. There are unspoken rules. The girls are competitive for affection. It unwinds when Coop and Anna begin a tryst that is discovered by her father. Anna runs away and keeps running from love for the rest of the story.

The second story is Lucien Segura’s. In a much earlier time in south central France, Lucien lives with his mother, and next door lives Marie-Neige. She moves there with her husband, a much older husband. Lucien and Marie-Neige grow close as they grow up. It’s the turn of the century and times are different than in 1970, yet the complications of loving someone forbidden to you are much the same.

Lucien’s story is much stronger than Anna’s. Although I enjoyed the writing of both, Lucien’s story is almost mystical. It’s more suck in my imagination than Anna’s story.

I wonder if all of Ondaatje’s love stories are ones of lost, discord and memory.

Find out more about Divisadero  by Michael Ondaatje.


UPDATE: Don mentions in the comments that Random House has a podcast featuring Michael Ondaatje and his M&S editor talking about Divisadero.


Thanks Don.

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

 

 

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.