Tag Archives: CanadianBookChallenge3

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

Vintage Canada, 2010

I own this one.

I have been on a book buying ban for over a year now.  That doesn’t mean I don’t fall off the wagon,  particularly with books published outside the US.  My public library is great, ordering many titles before they are published, but they only purchase books published in this country.  So when I read about great books from Canada or elsewhere I struggle with book lust, and occasionally the book wins.  This book is an example, I just had to have it.

Annabel Lyon has written an extraordinary first novel, taking a crucial time in the history of western civilization and bringing it to life through the voice and thoughts of one of the founders of western philosophy.

Aristotle, along with his wife Pythias and their entourage, travel to the city of Pella. After a separation of many years Aristotle meets up with his old friend Philip,  now the King of Macedonia.

“You refined piece of shit,” the king says. “You’ve spent too much time in the East.  Look at yourself, man.”

We embrace.  As boys we played together, when Philip’s father was king and my father the king’s physician.  I was taller but Philip was tougher: so it remains.  I’m conscious of the fine, light clothing I’ve  changed into for this meeting, of the fashionable short clip of my hair, of my fingers gently splayed with rings.  Philip’s beard is rough, his fingernails are dirty, he wears homespun.  He looks like what he is: a soldier, bored by this great marble throne room.  From page 13.

Philip asks him to tutor his son, Alexander.  Aristotle is torn between the demands of his friend and his own desire to succeed his teacher, Plato, and lead the Academy in Athens.  He ponders his past and his future.  He helps Arrhidaeus, Philip’s elder son,  changed after a severe illness at the age of five.  He teaches Alexander, and his companions.

I gather my father’s scalpels from the boys and wipe them slowly, meticulously, as I was taught.  “I had a master, when I was not much older than you.  He was very interested in what things were.  In what was real, if you like, and what” – I gestured at the remains of the chameleon – “was perishable, what would pass away and be lost.  He believed there were two worlds.  In the world we see and hear and touch, in the world we live in, things are temporary and imperfect.  There are many, many chameleons in the world, for instance, but this one has a lame foot, and this one’s colour is uneven, and so on.  Yet we know they are all chameleons;  there is something they share that makes them all alike.  We might say they have the same form; though they differ in details, they all share the same form,  the form of a chameleon.  It is this form, rather than the chameleon itself, that is ideal, perfect and unchanging.  We might say the same of a dog or a cat, or a horse, or a man.  Or a chair, or a number.  Each of these exists in the world of forms, perfectly, unchangingly.” From pages 91/92.

There are many fine characters in this book and Aristotle has ideas about all of them, from soldier to slave.  Combining daily life, philosophy, politics, sexuality and warfare,  told by a historic  figure at once brilliant and unsure,  The Golden Mean is a novel that is intelligent,  funny and surprisingly relevant to our own daily lives.

It reminds me of a book I read last summer, Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Both take a period in the history of western civilization and daringly write literary portraits of daily life.  Both novels feel historically accurate to me, but I am not a classical scholar.  Le Guin uses figures from classical literature, Lyon uses figures from history.  I loved both of these books.  I am in awe of Lyon’s creativity, depth of research,  and willingness to take risks with the western canon.  I have added several books from her bibliography to my to-be-read list, and hope I will actually get around to reading some of them.

Have you read and reviewed this book?  Please leave a comment so I can link to your review.

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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge3, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010, Notable Books

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Bloombury, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

A trip taken at the request of an old commander. A slow train back to a place of struggle and yearning.  A diagnosis of cancer.  All these things  allow the narrator of this timely novel to remember his past.  Most of the story takes place in Kashmir, below the highest battlefield in the world.  India and Pakistan are in a struggle for territory. There is fighting, there are terrorist acts.  Many have died, mostly due to the severe weather conditions.

Kirpal Singh, known as Kip, is not yet twenty when he arrives at the an Indian army camp below the Siachen Glacier.  Kip is apprenticed to the camp chef, Kishen, who lectures him on cooking, politics and women.  He learns to cook  local dishes and, at Kischen’s insistence, unusual foods from around the world.  As a Sikh, Kip could hold himself apart from this struggle for land and power but he is loyal to India.  His father, a military hero who died on the glacier, is a constant presence.  It is not until General Kumar orders Kip to interrogate a prisoner that he begins to question his place and the logic of the ongoing struggle.

The officers, in proper uniforms and black boots, looked at me in relief as if I had just saved them.  The captive lay on the bed.  He was a she.   The first enemy I ever saw was a she, and already I had apologized to her moments ago on two counts.  The first thing I noticed was the unconscious movement of her head.  Rapid breathing.  Terror in the eyes. Peasant feet.  The toe ring gleamed in fluorescent light.  There was a cut on her left foot.

The colonel asked me to occupy the chair next to the enemy’s bed.  I took a deep breath, then the interrogation began.  It was my first time as an interpreter.  I asked the questions slowly, she stammered her responses.  I do not recall the many unintelligible things she brought to her lips.  But the essence has stayed with me. From page 127.

After 14 years Kip is asked to prepare the wedding feast for the commander’s daughter, Rubiya, now a poet and journalist engaged to marry a Pakistani. Upon his return Kip learns the fate of his enemy, the woman he could never forget.

A book at once harsh and lyrical, I found Chef wonderful and frustrating at the same time.   There are parts that are deep and evocative, bringing to life the political struggle taking place in this land of intense cold, between these people, Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Pakistani.  And then there are parts that feel shallow and incomplete.  Perhaps this is simply Kip’s memory, and his illness made manifest.

I enjoyed Chef, I learned about I place I hadn’t known about, and plan on reading Jaspreet Singh’s book of short stories, Seventeen Tomatoes.

Siachen Glacier

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Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, CanadianBookChallenge3, Fiction, New Authors 2010, Review

Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas

Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas

Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, New Brunswick, 2008

I own this one.  It won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2009 and the Amazon First Novel Award.

I cannot remember where I first learned of this book.  It might have been on the CBC website or through Amazon CA.  All I know is I waited for months to see if the library would buy a copy and then just couldn’t wait any longer.

Reading by Lightning is the story of Lily Piper, a young girl growing up in a farming community in Saskatchewan.  Her father traveled to Canada from England, following the charismatic preacher Isaac Barr, and his followers wait for a moment of rapture when they will rise up to heaven.  Lily is restless and rebellious, not as compliant as her Mother would like.  She has an irrepressible urge to break free.

At sixteen she is sent to England to care for her Grandmother.  There she meets her father’s family, revels in her freedom and falls in love, only to be called back to Canada by her family.

In Lily, we find a young girl full of deep thoughts and strong feeling.  Her struggle to break out and discover herself is one all adolescents endure and Thomas has written of it with beauty and grace.  This is another one of those books I find difficult to describe.  It is sprawling, covering decades, and yet so delicate and precise it is a joy to read.

And of course, no one talked back then, except about things that happened a long time ago.  When I try to tell about our life I am struck by how thin and poor my words are.  The dog’s dish, with its chipped enamel rim, battered by being driven over when I left it out in the yard.  The chair with the broken back.  The clock, our clock, with the hand that struggled to cross over the top of the hour.  The goat.  Things have just one words for them –dish, chair, clock, goat.  The biggest crime you could commit against your neighbor was aspiring to anything fancier, especially words.  The Parrot’s goat might have been made to show how poor and mean words are.  From page 79

..Once I boarded the SS Franconia it was different: there we were all held in a little society in which it seemed I had to account for myself.  Sometimes I thought the other passengers were piqued by my naiveté, and during the cool, sunny days when everyone strolled on deck I leaned against the railing and looked out to the horizon as though this were my habitual attitude, gazing across endless fields of rippling wheat.  That’s how I made my way across the ocean,playing the role of the unspoiled, forthright farm girl.   One night in the dining room a man in a shabby brown suit talked about the drought on the prairies. It’s the sign of the end times, I said boldly.  It’s in the Book of Revelations.  There’s a drought on the prairies every thirty years, said the man.  It’s a natural cycle.  He didn’t bother even to glance at me again.  And then my longing for England was fierce, for England, where I would be someone else, although I didn’t know then who that would be.  From page 136.

The story moves between first person and third person points of view but I did not find this a distraction.  Thomas is a fine writer and I will be happy if she publishes another novel.

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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge3, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010

Two by Emily Carr

Klee Wyck by Emily Carr

Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2003

Purchased at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, BC.

Klee Wyck, the name given to Emily Carr by the people of Ucluelet, means “Laughing One”.

A book of stories and word sketches based on the artist’s experiences visiting and living with First Nations people on Vancouver Island and along the British Columbia coast.  Beautifully written in clear and direct language, as vivid as her paintings.

After her death whole sections of the book were removed for an “educational” printing, including derogatory descriptions of missionaries at Ucluelet and observations of their negative reactions to Native beliefs and family life.

The Book Of Small by Emily Carr

Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2004

Purchased at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

This book is a collection of word sketches that describe Emily Carr’s life as a young girl growing up in Victoria, British Columbia, during the time the town grew from a frontier village on the edge of Vancouver Island, into a thriving community that would, in time, become the capital of that province.

As in Klee Wyck Carr’s simple prose paints clear pictures of the community and local characters.  She was an observant and rebellious child, often questioning the adults around her.  These traits served her well as she developed her independence and her art.

As far back as I can remember Father’s place was all made and in order.  The house was large and well built, of California redwood, the garden prim and carefully tended.  Everything about it was extremely English.  It was as though Father had buried a tremendous homesickness in this new soil and it had rooted and come up English.  There were hawthorn hedges, primrose banks and cow pastures with shrubberies.

We had an orchard and a great tin-lined apple room, wonderful strawberry beds and raspberry and currant bushes, all from imported English stock, and an Isabella grape which Father took great pride in.  We had chickens and cows and a pig, a grand vegetable garden — almost everything we ate we grew on our own place.

I  have mentioned before that Emily Carr is one of my favorite artists.  Her life and her art show tremendous determination at a time when being an artist was a very difficult path for a women.

Totem Walk at Sitka

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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge3, Nonfiction, Review

The World More Full Of Weeping by Robert J. Wiersema

A World More Full of Weeping

By Robert J. Wiersema

Chizine Publications, Toronto, 2009

I bought this from Chizine after reading a review by Colleen at Chasing Ray.

A spellbinding novella by a Canadian author new to me. 

11-year-old Brian lives with his divorced father, Jeff,  in a house next to the woods.   His mother, Diane, is  living in Vancouver and has decided Brian needs to come and live with her.

Each day Brian spends more and more time in the woods behind his house until one night he doesn’t come home at all.  The search parties are called and Jeff begins to remember a time when he disappeared into the woods.   He begins to remember what he found there.  His thoughts start to unravel, finally coming to an understanding of what has happened.

The story is like fantasy but is not really fantasy.  It is more like a dream.   Wiersema’s writing is cool and clear,  a stream deep in the woods.  I remember walking in places like this, hearing the sounds, feeling the brush of cedar against my arm, slowing down and seeing .

There.

The coyotes were almost the same sandy brown colour as the ground.  If he hadn’t slowed to look,  he wouldn’t have seen them.  If  he hadn’t quieted, he would have woken them and they would have slipped away, unseen and unknown.

He was suddenly acutely aware of how much poorer his life would have been had he never seen them. From page 31/32.

This book is a mysterious gem. There is a wonderful essay called “Places & Names”  at the end.  The jacket artwork, by Erik Mohr, is stunning.  I am happy that I was able to support the publisher and the author by buying the book directly from Chizine.

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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge3, New Authors 2010, Review

In The Company of Whales by Alexander Morton

In The Company of Whales:

From the Diary of a Whale Watcher by Alexandra Morton

Orca Book Publishing, Vancouver, BC 1993

From my school library.

This is a wonderful science book for middle readers.  Alexandra Morton, a whale researcher from British Columbia explains how she became interested in studying Orcas (Killer Whales – Orcinus orca), how she tracked one captive whale’s family into the waters of Western Canada and what it is like studying these magnificent animals.

She includes notes from her observation diary, beautiful photos,  and many sidebars on Orca families, behavior and the environment they live in.  Her writing is very clear and direct and any student reading this book is going to learn something about what it takes to study these animals in their environment.

Spring –

June 18

0740 – Drop the hydrophone.  At first all I hear is the snapping of shrimp and the strange little chirps I hear only in the inlets.  My underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, allows me to hear beneath the surface.  Above the water all may be quiet, but underwater I can hear rock cod grunting, otters piping, many unidentified sounds like little chirps, and, of course, the calls of killer whales.  The whales can be very loud and heard ten miles away if there are not too many boat engines drowning them out.  Often the best way to find whales is by listening for them.  From page 19.

Alex Morton runs an organization called the Raincoast Research Society which can be found here.

Puget Sound Orcas

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Filed under Animals, CanadianBookChallenge3, Review, Science, Young Adult

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my local library.

The Year of the Flood is a companion novel to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, published in 2003.  In that first novel we are introduced to a world where mega-corporations have taken control of the entire planet, and genetic and bio engineering have run rampant.

In Oryx and Crake we follow the main character, Jimmy, known as Snowman, as he stumbles through a world devastated by a catastrophic pandemic. It is a world populated by transgenic animals and genetically engineered humans named after their creator, and Jimmy’s best friend, the brilliant Crake.   Through Jimmy’s wandering thoughts and dreams we learn  of  his relationship with Crake, their connection with a woman named Oryx and some of the history of the destroyed environment.  We find that Crake has left Jimmy as a guardian for his genetically engineered  “Crakers”.  At the very end of the book Jimmy stumbles upon people at a campfire, humans like himself, and we are left to imagine what actions Jimmy will take.

The Year of the Flood open in Year 25, and through varied flashback we are given bits of information about the “waterless flood”, a virulent pandemic. This world is much more developed then the one in Oryx and Crake. We hear the voices of several main characters, some carried forward from the first novel.   We learn more about  “God’s Gardeners”, the Corporations and their security arm CorpSeCorps.

The story is mainly told by two women who have survived the “flood”, Toby and Ren.  Through happy accidents they were sequestered away and watch as the flood demolishes most of the people around them.  The world is nasty and violent in the extreme and the two women struggle to survive, all the while hoping to connect with those they have lost.  They struggle to find food and protect themselves from the sun and the weather.  Most of the male characters are not fully developed, they are hollow, egotistical and violent.  The genetically enhanced and modified animals end up surviving and multiplying.  Plant life abounds, buildings fall apart. In the end Toby and Ren do survive, meet up and travel away from the human constructed enclaves, to the sea, where they run into Jimmy, a person out of the past.

I found Atwood’s eco-religious “God’s Gardeners”  fascinating.  There are meditations presented by their leader, Adam One, sprinkled throughout the novel, sounding like sermons given by a dedicated priest,  hymns to saints like Carson and Chico Mendes and Feast Days devoted to animals and trees.  There is even a CD of the hymns. These creations, as well as Atwood’s extrapolations from present day scientific and corporate developments are the bones of this novel, what gave it depth for me.

April Fish – Year Fourteen

Please join me now in a meditation on our Fish brethren.

Dear God, you who created the great and wide Sea, with its creatures innumerable: we pray that You hold in your gaze those who dwell in Your underwater Garden, in which life originated; and we pray that none may vanish from the Earth by Human agency.  Let Love and aid be brought to the Sea Creatures in their present peril and great suffering; which comes to them from the warming of the Sea, and through the dragging of nets and hooks along the bottom of it, and through the slaughtering of all within it, from the Creatures of the shallows to the Creatures of the depths, the Giant Squid included; and remember your Whales, that you created on the fifth day, and set in the Sea to play therein; and help especially the Sharks, that misunderstood and much-persecuted breed.

We hold in our minds the Great Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico; and the Great Dead Zone in Lake Erie;  and the Great Dead Zone in the Black Sea; and the desolate Grand Banks of Newfoundland, where the Cod once abounded; and the Great Barrier Reef, now dying and bleaching white and breaking apart.

Let the come to Life again; let Love shine upon them and restore them; and let us be forgiven for our oceanic murders; and for our foolishness, when it is the wrong kind of foolishness; for in Your sight, we are all mute and foolish.

Let us sing. From page 196/197.

Atwood has always refused to call The Handmaiden’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood “science fiction”, instead preferring the less genre specific “speculative fiction”.  This has something to do with what is considered “literary” fiction, what will be reviewed by “critics” and short-listed for prizes.  The Year of the Flood is science fiction in my mind, but then so is 1984, Brave New World, A Canticle for Liebowitz and The Road. In the everyday world of  the reader these genre boundaries have begun to blur, and will continue to do so.

I liked both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, but I enjoyed the second novel more because I think Atwood took more time developing her world, got deeper into its reality. I appreciate Atwood’s intelligence, her searing sarcasm and her anger but think these things may sometimes get in her way.  I found depth in the “God’s Gardeners” because she did.

By sheer coincidence I am reading another book that covers lots of the same fictional territory as The Year of the Flood. It is classified as science fiction and I will review it soon.

Other reviews:

A Progressive on the Prairie

Boston Bibliophile

Fantasy Book Critic

Shelf Love



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Filed under CanadianBookChallenge3, Review, SciFi, SciFi Challenge, Uncategorized