Monthly Archives: May 2008

Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay

This book won the Giller Prize this year, and I think (after some reflection) it was deserved, although I’m still overwhelmed that Cloud of Bone, which I think is a better novel than most of the shortlist, wasn’t nominated. But I’ll lay aside my bitterness over that enough to admit that Late Nights on Air is a beautifully written and haunting novel.

Set in Yellowknife in the 1970s, the action of the novel centres around the small local CBC radio station. I’ve never before read a novel set largely in a radio station, and having spent much of my life working or volunteering in a small radio station I enjoyed some of the details of the setting. The technology is of an era I remember — the tedious splicing of reel-to-reel tapes to edit an interview, the use of cart decks for promos and IDs, etc — and I enjoyed those little details that were so well rendered.

The larger setting is the Canadian North, during the time of a national inquiry into whether an oil and gas pipeline should be built across the Arctic — a debate that brings to the fore many questions about environment and the rights of aboriginal people.  The novel’s main characters are all white people, transplanted to the North from various places in Canada and the rest of the world, and are all interested observers of the political issues of the day — as they would be, working in radio.

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The Barefoot Believers, by Annie Jones

The Barefoot Believers is a light and engaging Christian novel about two sisters whose lifelong rivalry comes to a head in midlife when they find themselves stranded together at their family’s old vacation home, each with an injury that restricts mobility, forced to rely on and put up with each other. While there, one sister rediscovers an old love interest, and the other sister discovers a new one. Plus, they manage to solve the mystery of the baby sister their dad abducted when they were young. All in about a week.

It’s a great premise, although the pacing is a bit uneven, the coincidences often too contrived, and the writing fairly pedestrian (as is all too often the case in much genre fiction, not just inspirational romance). As a light beach read for someone who likes her romance flavoured with Christian values, it’s not bad at all, although I can’t help wishing that with these characters and this set-up, the author could have done something much more interesting.

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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve been meaning to read this one for awhile. I’m not sure why.  I have all kinds of issues with people who tell me I should do more for the environment, especially if it involves changing my eating habits.  I’ve blogged about this already and I will blog some more about it in the near future, based on the thinking I’ve done about this book.  To make a long story short here, let’s say that although I am fascinated by the concept of being a locavore (one who eats only food grown or raised in one’s immediate local area) I’m unlikely to become one anytime soon, for a variety of reasons.

However, it was Barbara Kingsolver herself (in her essay collection, Small Wonder), who introduced me to this whole idea, and as it’s since become trendy in so many quarters, I was interested to read what she had to say about her own family’s experience with this experiment.  Besides, whether she’s writing fiction or non-fiction, Barbara Kingsolver is just a very engaging and readable author, so I knew I’d have a good time no matter what I thought about her experiment.

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Good Grief, by Lolly Winston

Good Grief was another one of those serendipitous judging-a-book-by-its-cover library discoveries I was very happy to have made.  In one of Anne Lamott’s books she talks about going to a library during her father’s illness and looking for the funny books about cancer — and getting a strange look.  I think you’d get the same response if you looked for the funny books about grief, but Good Grief is a very funny, and also very real, fictional exploration of one young widow’s journey through grief.

Sophie is thirty-six when her husband Ethan dies of cancer, and rather than sliding beatifically through grief as she had imagined doing, Sophie finds her life falling apart as she slides into depression — and then manages to crawl back out and cobble together a new life for herself.  What makes the story funny and engaging is Sophie’s voice, which is so strong and true and likable that you really feel for her when, in the depths of her depression, she goes to work at her PR job wearing a bathrobe and bunny slippers — knowing, somehow, that this isn’t the right thing to do, but not sure how to correct the problem

In the later part of the book, when Sophie is rebuilding her new life in a new town, there are a few parts that stretched credibility with coincidences that just seemed too neat, but the story never became fairy-tale-like or ridiculous.  It was always an enjoyable read and one that kept me turning pages right to the end.

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The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta

There are books I plan to read, books that are recommended to me or that I catch a review of, like the five or six books currently on my “Want to Read” list on Facebook’s Visual Bookshelf. Then there are books that I’ve never heard of, that catch my eye entirely by accident, often as I walk into the library. Don’t judge a book by its cover? Don’t be so foolish. If the title and cover aren’t catchy, I might never pick up the book. And God bless the people who make up the displays at the front door of the library, because without them a lot of good books might never have fallen into my hands. Like this one.

The Abstinence Teacher is a story that brings the right/left religion and culture wars in contemporary America down to the personal level. Ruth is a middle-aged, divorced teacher whose approach to teaching sex ed to teenagers is liberal: she believes that pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power. All that changes when her class becomes controversial and, under pressure from a group of conservative evangelicals, she is forced to teach an “abstinence only” curriculum that goes against everything she believes.

But it’s also the story of Tim, a member of that conservative evangelical church who truly and genuinely believes that Jesus saved him from a life that was going down the tubes fast. Tim and Ruth are thrown into conflict when he leads her daughter’s soccer team (he’s the coach) in a spontaneous prayer session, and an enraged Ruth hauls her daughter off the soccer field.

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Whistling in the Dark, by Lesley Kagen

Whistling in the Dark is the story of Sally and Troo, two pre-adolescent sisters growing up in a working-class Milwaukee neighbourhood in the late 1950s. Behind the usual nostalgia for childhood in a simpler time is a dark shadow: two young girls have been molested and murdered in the neighbourhood in the last year, and little girls like Sally and Troo are living in fear. And their home life is no refuge: their daddy is dead; their mom is in hospital, possibly dying, and their new stepfather is worse than useless — he’s gone most of the time and drunk when he’s home.

The story is narrated in Sally’s engaging and believable (though occasionally slightly too-cute) voice. Kagen does a great job of presenting the naive child narrator dealing with very adult topics and allowing the reader to see what’s really happening more clearly than Sally herself does. Both major and minor characters are well-drawn and the story moves along quickly to a heartwarming conclusion.

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The Turning, by Tim Winton

The Turning is another of the books that was recommended and given to me while I was in Australia. Before I even opened the cover I had to overcome two of my deep-seated prejudices: I’m resistant to fiction by men (despite numerous great examples to the contrary), and I generally don’t enjoy short stories. But this collection of short stories by an Australian male writer came so highly recommended that I went ahead and picked it up.

I was hooked almost immediately by the strong and believable voice of the first story’s narrator. Though narrators and characters changed from story to story, the book continued to grab me and keep me reading. Every story is beautifully crafted, every character flawed yet sympathetic, and almost every word perfect. This is literary fiction at its best — writing that is beautiful in and of itself, but doesn’t draw attention to itself: the focus is always on the characters, their stories, and the world they live in.

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