Category Archives: CanadianBookChallenge4

The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2002

Borrowed from my library.  Chosen as the 2004 Canada Reads novel and nominated for the 2004 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

I chose to read this book for the Hop-a-long, Git-a-long, Read-a-long, having never read westerns before. Well that’s not exactly true, I started reading Blood Meridian but gave up after too many blood-soaked passages.

Brothers Charles and Addington Gaunt are goaded by their father into traveling to Fort Benton, Montana, to search for Charles’ twin, Simon, who has disappeared in the northern plains.  Addington, a disgraced army officer, leads the search party as if it is some sort of British expedition.  They hire Jerry Potts, a half-Blackfoot, half-Scot tracker and guide,  to lead them north.  Joined by an assortment of characters, the brothers travel into Canada, weaving the threads of their varied stories together.  The novel is told in several voices, all different and distinct.  Jerry Potts, known as Little Bear, was a buffalo-hunter, trader and guide for the North West Mounted Police in  the 1870’s and he quiet presence grounds the fictional search party and allows it to move forward, constantly pushing against Addington’s foolish disregard for reality.

Jerry Potts in the sensitive antennae of the caravan.  He feels their way for them, heavily laden wagons creeping behind him, the slow fumbling body of a cumbersome insect.  From dawn to dusk they crawl past ravines and low prominences, inch over muddy river fords. After two days they gain British territory, steal past the southern flanks of the Cypress Hills, squirm around Old Man On His Back Hills, nosing their way towards the Whitemud River.  From page 127.

The story is driven by two mysteries,  Simon’s disappearance after he follows an evangelical preacher into the wilderness, and the murder of a young girl, Madge Dray. Lucy Stoveall, Madge’s older sister, begs to join the party, claiming she is searching for her husband but, in truth, searching for Madge’s killers.  Her being in the troop adds layers of tension and passion to the story.  Scenes are vividly portrayed, hard travel, wild lands, a  great battle between the Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine warriors, something I never thought I would be enthralled by.

Vanderhaeghe pulls the threads of this historical novel together with great skill. There are elements of Victorian class, culture and sexuality and the driving force of colonial expansion. I enjoyed The Last Crossing,  am very glad I gave this “western” a try.  Thanks for the inspiration, James.  I will be reading more titles from your list.


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Historical Fiction, Review, Western

Buffalo Jump by Howard Shrier

Buffalo Jump by Howard Shrier

Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2008

I own this one, well actually Mr G owns this one, but it was definitely on my TBR list.

I forget where I first heard about this one, maybe it was on the CBC website, or on an awards list.

Investigator Jonah Geller has returned to work after a case that went to hell.  Recuperating from a wound, feeling like an idiot, he really isn’t sure he should continue in this line of work.  Then he is approached by Dante Ryan, a contact hit man working for the mob in Toronto, who wants Jonah to find out who ordered his next hit.  Jonah finds he really doesn’t have a choice, that he must help Ryan find the answer to his question.

One of the best “private eye” mysteries I’ve read in a while, Buffalo Jump is an interesting mix of noir, politics and humor.  Jonah, the youngest of two brothers and the odd one out in his family, is traumatized by being shot during the blown case, as well as suffering recurring  nightmares brought on by the time he spent in the Israeli army.  Dante, one of the nicest hit men you’ll ever come across, is trying to figure a way out of the business.  The story is tightly written and tied to our present economic climate,  but the best part is the relationship that grows between Jonah and Dante.  One minute they are best buddies and the next minute they want to tear each other apart.  Fast moving and funny, this novel is a great read.

Buffalo Jump won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel in 2009 and the second book in the series, High Chicago, won the 2010 Ellis Award  for best Novel.  I plan on reading that one next.

1 Comment

Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Mystery, Review

Who Has Seen The Wind by W.O. Mitchell

Who Has Seen The Wind by W.O. Mitchell

McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, 1998

I own this one.

I learned about this classic Canadian novel that by reading other Canadian novels.

First published in 1947, this is a story about a boy growing up in a small town on the Saskatchewan prairie during the 1930’s.

Brian O’Connal lives on the edge of the prairie with his Mother, Father, Grandmother and younger brother.  He is surrounded by odd characters, his Uncle Sean, Old Ben and Saint Sammy who lives in a piano crate.

When we first meet Brian he is angry over all the attention his sick baby brother is getting. His mother and father ignore him, his Grandmother shoos him out of the house.  Brian’s thoughts and feelings, expressed in internal dialogue,  are so like a four-year old child’s.  This is one of Mitchell’s gifts.  He had an ability to let us into his characters thoughts.

As Brian grows up, sharing the town with his friends and his dog Jappy, we meet many of the people who live around him. He learns about life, faith and human failings from his experiences and the adults he interacts with.  He is always drawn to the Prairie and to a wild boy who lives there.

And all about him was the wind now, a pervasive sighing trough great emptiness, as though the prairie itself was breathing in long gusting breaths, unhampered by the buildings of town, warm and living against his face and in his hair.  From page 13.

But it is not just Brian that we follow in this novel.  We follow other characters, particularly the teachers and principle of the local school.  Mitchell give us this small community with all its strengths and weaknesses.  Small town prejudice and hypocrisy, the class system of  the ” right” and “wrong” side of the tracks, the devastation of the dust bowl years.  All placed in a landscape that holds it all together as if in a golden bowl.

W.O. Michell paints this place with words.  The language is pure and lyrical.  I kept seeing each scene as if I were standing in the middle of  the prairie.  It is magnificent, every color, every sound, every scent.  I can understand why Canadians love this novel, how it has become a classic.  It is a part of that vast and beautiful country.

The following poem by Christina Rossetti inspired the title of this book.  Several boys actually quote a few lines in the text.

Who Has Seen the Wind?

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Historical Fiction, Review, TBR

The Wayfinders by Wade Davis

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

By Wade Davis

House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2009

This book comprises the 2009 Massey Lectures broadcast in November, 2009, as part of the CBC Idea Series.  I borrowed it from my library but am adding it to my holiday wish list.

When I was last at university I planned on getting a degree in Cultural Anthropology.  Due to changes in my life this didn’t work out, but I am still fascinated by the subject.

Wade Davis, now the Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society, has spent decades living with and getting to know different peoples all over the Earth.  While we are all aware and disturbed by the loss of species, both flora and fauna, across the planet, few know that many anthropologists believe that we will lose fifty percent of the 7,000 languages spoken around the world today within next 50 years.  Human cultures are going extinct at an alarming rate.

From the islands of Polynesia to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria of Columbia and the High Arctic of Greenland, Davis tells of the people who live and thrive in these many different environments.  Their skills and accomplishments are amazing.  Take for example the Polynesian Wayfinder, navigator of the canoe Hokule’a.

It is one thing, for example, to measure the speed of the Hokule’a with a simple calculation:  the time a bit of foam or flotsam, or prehaps a mere bubble, takes to pass the known length separating  the crossbeams of the canoe.   Three seconds and the speed will be 8.5 knots, 15 seconds and the vessel slogs at  a mere 1.5 knots.
But it is quite another to make such calculations continually, day and night, while also taking the measure of stars breaking the horizon, winds shifting both in speed and direction, swells moving through the canoe, clouds and waves.  The science and art of navigation is holistic.  The Navigator must process an endless flow of data , intuitions and insights derived from observations and dynamic rhythms and interactions of the winds, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef – in short the constantly changing world of  weather and the sea.  From page 60.

Most of these people are what Westerners would consider poor and suffer for lack of modern conveniences,  but they carry within their cultures the abilities to adapt and survive in marginal landscapes.  They are physically and spiritual connected to the land they where they live and, it seems, wonder at us and all we have and do.  Some of them want what we have, many do not, regardless of what those of us who cry for development and modernization choose to believe.

What made this book wonderful for me was the level of description and detail, the care Davis’ has taken with each person he writes about, each story he tells.  Davis has spent years visiting with and living with many different individuals who are part of these many different cultures.  He has come up with some interesting observations.

The problem is not change.  We have this conceit in the West that while we have been celebrating and developing technological wizardry, somehow the other peoples of the world have been static and intellectually idle.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Change is the one constant in history.  All peoples in all places are always dancing with new possibilities for life.  Nor is technology per se a threat to the integrity of culture.  The Lakota did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow for the rifle any more than a rancher from Medicine Hat ceased being a Canadian when he gave up the horse and buggy in favour of the automobile.  It is neither change nor technology that threatens the integrity of culture.  It is power, the crude face of domination.  We have this idea that these indigenous peoples,  these distant others, quaint and colourful as they may be, are somehow destined to fade away, as if by natural law, as if they are failed attempts at being modern, failed attempts at being us.  This is simply not true.  In every case these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiably and overwhelming external forces.  This is actually a optimistic observation, for it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitators of cultural survival.  From page 166/167.

In the end, Davis believes that we in the West have much to learn from indigenous cultures.  In fact, in order for us to survive climate change and our massive impact on the planet, we need to realize and honor the fact that there are different ways for human beings to live, to thrive in social and spiritual connection with each other and with their home ground.  I was enthralled by this book, saddened in some ways, but also filled with joy in the knowledge that these people are out there, living in ways that are not destroying the planet.  There are some wonderful videos on this subject here.

Other reviews:

she reads and reads


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Culture, Nonfiction, Review

February By Lisa Moore

February by Lisa Moore

Black Cat, New York, 2009

This novel was on the long list for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.  I borrowed it from the library.

February is the first book I have read by Lisa Moore and I loved it, was moved by it.  It is the story of Helen O’Mara, her four children and a tragedy, the sinking of an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland.  Helen’s husband, Cal, dies on that rig, leaving Helen to raise her children.  The accident is based based on a true event.

On February 15th, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank 165 miles east of Newfoundland, taking the lives of all 84 men on board.  Many years later this event still has an impact on the lives of  the people of Newfoundland.

Moore tells this story in several voices, shifting back and forth in time, and it helps that the heading of each small section includes the year.  Helen’s is the main focus, her devastation at the loss of her husband and her split lives,  one holding the world together for her children, the other drifting, without an anchor, in a place separate from others, barely surviving the grief, the inability to understand, just hanging on by a thread.   She lives in the present and she lives in the past with her husband, going over each tiny piece of their life together as if turning something precious in her hands.  Why did they make the choices they did?

There were men who would kill to have this job: that was the wisdom they worked under.  And: the helicopter was a terror.  But it was impossible to imagine the whole rig capsizing.
If the men did imagine it they did not tell their wives; they did not tell their mothers.  They developed a morbid humor that didn’t translate on land, so they kept it mostly on the rig. From page 97.

Her son John has just learned that he is about to be a father and is returning home for her support.  He is also overwhelmed by memories.

John remembers being in the back seat of the car with his sisters and going down Garrison Hill.  Coming up over Bonaventure, his father would gun it, saying they were going straight for the harbour.  Her and Cathy and Lulu in the back and his mother in her red wet-look hot pants suit.  His stomach would lift when they went over the top of the hill and came down, like being in an elevator.  The little bounce the car made.  The girls screaming.  His mother wore big sunglasses and hoop earrings and she had long legs, his father tended to her hand and foot.  Flying over the Garrison Hill, the east end lost in fog.  The bells of the Basilica.  From page 106.

A novel like February could have been written in ways that are overwrought and maudlin, but Moore side-steps this by using clear, descriptive language to focus the reader on her character’s thoughts and feelings.  At times this feels thin, almost shallow,  but then I felt as if I was walking on a very fine sheet of ice, and below there was all that depth, the cold weight of great loss.   Even though I have not been through anything like Helen’s tragedy, I empathized with her and often found myself right there in that place of fragility, fighting off despair.  Moore writes with words that are beautiful and evocative.  I will read more of her work.

The snow was lifting off the drifts in transparent glittering sheets that twisted and flapped and folded together at the corners and folded again, and she could hear someone’s tires squealing on the road.  The tires were burning and squealing and the engine was growling and it was such a magnificent morning and her knees gave.  The trees were encased in ice and the sun shot sparkles down the length of the branches.  The sun was like an old nickel in the sky, tarnished, dull, behind all the flying snow. Helen’s knees would not hold her.  The whole world floods you, bursts you open; the world is bigger than expected, and brighter.  From page 270.

To read other thoughts about February visit these links:

dovegreyreader scribbles



My Novel Reviews



Filed under Booker, CanadianBookChallenge4, ContemporaryFiction, New Authors 2010, Review

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2010

Shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.  Borrowed from the library.

Wow.  Room is one of the most initially disturbing and unusual books I have read in a long time.  The story, told by five-year-old Jack,  is about a young women who has been kidnapped and forced to live in a twelve by twelve foot room. In this room she gives birth to her son and raises him in the best way she can think of.  In the beginning the story had me feeling claustrophobic and very uncomfortable, I almost put it down.   Donoghue’s skill, her ability to “be” Jack, is what made me stick with it.  At times writing this book must have been difficult.

We have our cereal and brush teeth get dressed and water Plant.  We try and fill Bath but after the first bit the water comes out all icy so we just wash with cloths.  It gets brighter through Skylight only not very.  TV doesn’t work too,  I miss my friends.  I pretend they’re coming on the screen, I pat them with my fingers.  Ma says let’s put on another shirt and pants each to be warm, even two socks on each foot.  We run Track for miles and miles and miles to warm us up, then Ma lets me take off the outside socks because my toes are all squished.  “My ears hurt,” I tell her.
Her eyebrows go up.
“It’s too quiet in them.”
“Ah, that’s because we’re not hearing all the little sounds we’re use to, like the heat coming on or the refrigerator hum.” From page 76.

Part of  the strength of this book is the personification of special objects, the way Ma’s instinctive protection of Jack makes all things inside Room part of their “family” and everything outside unreal, as if what’s out there are props in some kind of surreal puppet show.

I know there has been intense discussion about this book.  It seems people either love it or hate it.  Some question Donoghue’s use of real life events as the basis for her novel, but authors have always written from life.   People have always told stories about other people. Stories are one of the ways we learn to put ourselves into different perspectives, to gain understanding and empathy.  Over time stories have help change human consciousness.  I find Emma Donoghue’s ability to place the point of view of her novel into the mind of a five-year old boy quite stunning, and greatly admire her for it.

Other reviews:


Farm Lane Books

Jenny’s Books (Guest Review)

Reading Matters

S. Krishna’s Books

Savidge Reads

The Written World


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, ContemporaryFiction, Review

Late Nights On Air by Elizabeth Hay

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2008

Winner of the 2007 Scotia Bank Giller Prize.

Borrowed from the library.

Last September I read Elizabeth Hay’s A Student of Weather and really enjoyed it.  I was introduced to this author through the Canadian Book Challenge and decided to read this Giller Prize winner for Canadian Book Challenge 4.  The one thing I found unsettling  in Hay’s writing was her use of foreshadowing, I would much rather have been left in the dark about some events.

Yellowknife is a town that seems to draw people to it, people either searching for something or running away from something.  In Hay’s novel, which takes place in the 1970’s,  many of those people end up working at the local radio station.  This collection of strangers, along with citizens and native people, form an insular community surrounded by pressures from the rest of the world.  With the building of a television station and the possibility of a pipeline, change is coming to this tiny northern town.

The radio crew, men and women dancing around each other, are filled with longing and loneliness. Some of these people have histories that contain small but devastating failures.  As relationships form, the past colors desires that bubbles to the surface.  Hay has a way with her characters,  she lovingly draws them with a few simple sentences.

The word ignited a connection between them, an identification, a deep interest.  Shy.  For Gwen it was a tiny, precise, potent word like air, like loam, rock, sand, clay, marl, silt, mud, one of the building blocks of the world she lived in.  An old word, wonderfully adapted to what it described.  Being shy.  Which meant shying away from oneself and from others, from life itself.  From page 112

The novel has much to say about voice and memory.  Judge Berger is holding an inquiry about the purposed pipeline.  He has invited all to speak. The indigenous people tell their histories and stories, the oilmen talk of development and progress.

…”Malarkey,” Teresa said, and laughed.  No purpose was served, she said, by all the malarkey that happens when people aren’t honest.
“In white culture, people are so busy lying through their teeth.  So busy thinking about getting ahead and making money, so busy thinking about how they’ll come across, that they can’t be themselves in a natural way.  It builds up such a complicated and depressing web.”
Teresa wasn’t laughing anymore.  To Gwen she looked tired, uncharacteristically worn out.  From pages 145/146.

And then there is change.  As people begin to move away, as the radio station becomes more threatened, four of the crew decide to take a trip into the Barrens, following the trail of John Hornby, a man who, along with his young cousin and a friend, died there in 1927.


John Hornby's Cabin. Image from Wikipedia.



Although I enjoyed the beginnings of this novel,  here is where it really came alive for me.  This group of strangers ends up in a place that defies their imagination and become part of an event that is like a dream.

They paddled to the south side of the river, as did Harry and Eleanor, and waited with thumping hearts for the caribou to come towards them along the shore, but the animals clambered out of the water and went the other way.  Then another, smaller group swam across the river and they too went up the sloping bank through low willows and spruce, the up over the rocky ledge and out of sight.
They had lunch on the rise of land above the river and realized they were on the edge of a large herd.  Caribou in the hundreds were all around them, in the distance and moving slowly, or not moving at all, blending in like boulders on the open tundra of grass and heath and rounded hills.  What they’d been hoping for had finally happened…
…..It was like witnessing the arrival of a myth: caribou emerged from the land and belonged to it, tentative, purposeful, graceful, shy, their colours buff, brown, grey, pale, Gwen’s colours when she first arrived at the station.  What they were seeing was the mass arrival of something beautifully recessive and fleeting.  They could have missed it just as easily, a few hours one way or the other.  From pages 292/293.

I find this part of Late Nights On Air one of the best evocations of humans faced with the world outside themselves I have ever read, and it brought the Caribou migration alive for me in ways even magnificent photographs have not.  The four continue their journey and finally reach Hornby’s gravesite.  In the end, returning to Yellowknife, they suffer losses, separate, then reconnect.  It is a bittersweet finish to a beautifully written novel.

Other reviews:

Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf

The Written Word

Today’s Adventure


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, ContemporaryFiction, GillerPrize, Review

Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2000

Borrowed from the library.

I read Green Grass, Running Water some years ago and enjoyed it, but Thomas King had dropped off my radar until I joined the Canadian Reading Challenge.

Truth is a small town in Montana that lies on the Canadian border across from Bright Water, a reserve, the term the Canadian government uses for the lands set aside for First Nations.  The two are separated by a river, the Shield.

Two young men, Tecumseh and his cousin Lum, along with Tecumseh’s dog, Soldier watch as a mysterious women jumps from a hill into the Shield.  They run to help and never find her, or any evidence of her.  Soldier does find a skull, the skull of a small child, the central mystery of the book.

From this opening scene we learn about the lives of the cousins and other members of their twinned community.  Tecumseh’s parents,  his aunt and Grandma, all live and thrive in their own individual ways and wait for the most exciting event of the year, Indian Days.  There is comedy and tragedy and a wonderful image of a native american artist, Monroe Swimmer, painting a church out of the landscape. I could see it disappearing as I read.

King is blessed with the ability to evoke the land, much like Wallace Stegner.  The novel is filled with symbolism, issues of culture, colonialism and race.

I enjoyed Truth and Bright Water and recommend it to anyone wanting to read Native American literature.


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, ContemporaryFiction, Young Adult

Animals by Don LePan

Animals by Don LePan

Soft Skull Press, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

Sam is deaf and lives during a time when people with disabilities are being abandoned by society.  There is no effort to help the blind and deaf, no system for children born with a chronic  illness.  No one tries to find out what is wrong, Sam is just different, and he is eventually classified as “mongrel”.  His mother, left in dire financial straits, is forced to abandon him, hoping the family she leaves him with will adopt him as a pet.  A pet?

I am not cute.   I  am not a pet.  I am not a mongrel.  I am a child, that’s all.

Animals is told in two parts.  The first part is a manuscript telling Sam’s story, the story of his birth family and his adoptive family, written by Naomi Okun, the girl whose family does take him in.  The second part is an explanation, with abundant footnotes, by someone named Broderick Clark, of this autobiographical manuscript.  LePan has used an interesting structure to deal with a difficult subject, one many of us would just as soon ignore.

This is speculative fiction, fiction that, given the present circumstances, points towards a possible future.  It reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.

There is no easy way to write about this.  We are in the future.  Due to factory farming and over use of antibiotics there has been a “great extinction”.  All of our domestic animals and pets have died.  There is a lack of protein and people are struggling.  There is a campaign stressing the dangers of soy.  The gap between rich and poor has widened exponentially. The world is edging towards chaos.

As more and more “sub-normal” people are marginalized and de-humanized, some are adopted as  “pets” and some are classified as chattel.  Eventually the chattel are gathered together, their labor is utilized and they become a food source.  Like I said, there is no easy way to write about this.

LaPan claims his main argument is against factory-farming and for the humane treatment of our food animals but I was left with a much broader sense of let’s stop eating meat(and fish), period.  This is a difficult and challenging book.  I feel like I need to put some distance between my first reading and then read it again.

I need to say that over the past few years I have grown closer and closer to becoming a true vegetarian.  There are occasions when I eat chicken or fish, and I am not vegan by any means, but something in me has me turning away from eating flesh.  Maybe it’s my knowledge of factory farms, or my awareness of the growing understanding of animal behavior and animal “consciousness”.  Maybe it’s the Buddhist idea of Ahimsa –  do no harm.  I buy organic when I can.  I eat tofu, legumes and lots of vegetables.  Animals, a deeply disturbing book, only reinforces my thoughts about food, about how we raise and slaughter what we eat.

Now I want to read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.


Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, Animals, CanadianBookChallenge4, Culture, New Authors 2010, Review, SpeculativeFiction

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel

The Singer’s Gun by Hilary St. John Mandel

Unbridled Books, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

I looked forward to this one, both because I had heard great things about St. John Mandel and because it is from Unbridled Books, a small press I admire.

The writing is clean and crisp, the story timely,  but somehow the book never really grabbed me.  It was like looking at something beautiful and realizing that the beauty is fading away right before my eyes.  I never felt much for the characters, even though they are well thought out.

Anton Waker grew up an a family of thieves and, encouraged by his cousin Aria he begins a life of crime at a young age.  When he decides to get out, go straight, have what he considers a real life, he finds it much more difficult than he expected.

The story is very well constructed, told from different points of view and I think St. John Mandel is a fine writer, but there is a chilliness, a edge to this book that just pushed me away, like the same poles of two magnets repelling each other.  Maybe it’s the characters, they seem detached and hollow.  Maybe it’s the times we live in.  Maybe it’s just me, the book left me feeling sad.  I will read The Last Night In Montreal because I want to see if it has a different feel, and I do like this author’s way with words.

Other reviews:


Musings of a Bookish Kitty

S. Krishna’s Books

She is too fond of books

You Gotta Read This


Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Fiction, New Authors 2010, Review