The City Still Breathing by Matthew Heiti

citystilbreathingHave you heard of Matthew Heiti? Yeah, me neither, but he definitely on my list of one to watch now. I just finished reading his novel The City Still Breathing and I can say that I was blown away by it. Heiti can write. My expectations were not overly high going in – I picked it up mostly because it was set in Sudbury – but I was anything but disappointed.

The City Still Breathing is a short novel, set in the course of 24 hours. There are numerous sub-story lines that all converge on a missing dead body. Some stories are only tangentially related to this, other have the dead body as the focus. Overall, the general timbre of the novel is far from joyful and rather gritty. Let’s just say that we are dealing with a slice of life this middle class girl has only read about. But the characters are incredibly well drawn for such a short book. And the language is unbelievable.

Who would like this book? This book is for CanLit lovers. It is dark and moody and very northern, if that makes sense. There is a touch of David Adams Richards in Heiti’s writing, though i didn’t find it quite so bleak.This book would also appeal to those who are looking outside the mainstream for their reading. Published by Coach House, you know you are going to get good quality and a beautifully produced book.

Canada Reads 2014 – The Books

canadareads2014Wow. I had heard that 2014’s Canada Reads was going to better than ever and I didn’t think it was possible … until now. I missed Jian‘s announcement of this years books and celebrity panelists, but I’m not going to let that stop me for weighing in.

yearofthefloodFirst up: Stephen Lewis defending Margaret Atwood‘s The Year of the Flood. Can it get any better than this? No. I mean, it’s Stephen (freakin’) Lewis defending Margret Atwood and a book about human folly leading to the end of times! I love this. Lewis is one of the greatest humanitarians, thinkers, and diplomats this world has ever seen. I admire him greatly. And Margaret Atwood is Margaret Atwood. Also a mental giant, fabulous writer and admirable soul. Combined, I like to believe that they are unstoppable. The Year of the Flood is my favorite of the MaddAddam trilogy, and it is definitely a book all Canadians should read. Lewis is a great orator and he can convince me of almost anything. And he may get some pointers from his son, Avi Lewis who defended Lawrence Hill‘s The Book of Negroes to win in 2009.

orendaNext up, Wab Kinew defending The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. I am not familiar with Kinew, but from what I’ve read he appears to be another heavy hitter. Musician, broadcaster, journalist, intellectual. I think he is going to do a commendable job, but it shouldn’t be too hard. He’s defending The Orenda after all. I haven’t read The Ordena yet, but if it anything like Boyden’s other works it will not only be a good read, it will be an important read. And that is what Canada Reads 2014 is all about. Boyden’s novel Three Day Road was chosen in Canada Reads 2006, but did not win. Will this be his year?

halfbloodbluesAnnounced third was Donovan Bailey defending Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. I haven’t read Half-Blood Blues yet, though I would like to. It comes with high acclaim, but I can see one slight draw back with it – it is not set in Canada or about Canadians so to speak. Sometimes in Canada Reads debates this can pose a problem. On the other hand, Bailey is a competitor who is not used to losing. From what I can remember he is quite well spoken, but will he be able to hold his ground against the likes of Lewis and Kinew?

cockroachBefore we start taking ourselves too seriously let’s look to Samantha Bee defending Rawi Hage‘s Cockroach. I don’t mean to imply that Bee is a lightweight or that the other panelists are not funny, but let’s face it, Bee is most widely known as a comedian. She is witty, smart and humorous and that may win her some points. I don’t know much about Cockroach, although it received a lot of acclaim when it came out in 2008. Set in Montreal, it may gain the favor of listeners/ readers from la belle provence.

annabelAnd finally, Annabel by Kathleen Winter is being defended by Sarah Gadon. I know absolutely nothing about Gadon except that she is an actress who has been in a number of David Cronenberg movies and appears to be a rising star. Annabel, on the other hand is a book I have read and enjoyed. Set on the East Coast, it is a novel dealing with sexuality and small town life. It is riveting.

So there we go. As you can probably tell I’m gunning for Stephen Lewis and The Year of the Flood to win, but realistically the book that I find most deserving never wins Canada Reads. I have yet to read three of the contenders, so perhaps my opinions will change. Who do you think will win? Only time will tell.

Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death-of-the-black-haired-girlI have been a fan of Robert Stone for many years now. His new books, however, often float under my radar. Not so with Death of the Black-Haired Girl.

Death of the Black-Haired Girl is a departure from what I think of as typical Robert Stone work. Usually his works are set in far flung locations and are distinctly political. His latest novel, however, is a campus novel. It is set at a small liberal arts college in New England. I don’t think I will ruin anything by saying that a black-haired female student dies during an altercation. Yet, Stone still brings his distinctive voice to what some may call a typical story. He deals with the politics of the situation on various levels by exploring the dead student’s political views on abortion, the role of sex and power in the academy and subtle but every present influence of religion in the lives of various players.

Generally, I love Stone’s books for their locations – Israel, Cuba, South America. The campus setting of Death of the Black-Haired Girl was unexpected, but as with all of his other locations, Stone very convincingly takes you there and makes it real. He also takes a rather typical campus plot line and turns it into something new. There was some nod to the thriller genre that his work can often slide into, but I think this novel remains firmly in the literary fiction genre.

Who would like this book? While fans of Robert Stone’s writing will still find much to appreciate in Death of the Black-Haired Girl, it is not a typical Robert Stone novel. It has not of that international intrigue and adventure. That being said, it is a very compelling read. I think that Stone often writes himself into his novels in some way. In this one I’m convinced he has cast himself as the dead girl’s father. The novel ends with his death from emphysema. Is Stone foreshadowing his own death (he has emphysema)? And will this be his last novel? Only time will tell, but I’d wager that anything else he writes will be similarly domestic.

Want Not by Jonathan Miles

wantnotWant Not by Jonathan Miles is a difficult novel to encapsulate. Ostensibly, it is about three seemingly disparate stories: a freegan couple making it in New York, an mid-career professor in New Jersey dealing with his ailing father and odd neighbors, and suburban teenager getting into trouble. But Want Not is also a meditation on consumerism, consumption and the first-world problem of having too much stuff.

There is a certain liberation in owning very little, though the American dream tells us that we should own our house and have all the latest gadgets. Just less than a year ago I divested myself of most possessions. That does not mean that I am a squatter living out of a backpack. I now live in a rented and furnished townhouse (with very little storage space), in a foreign country. We sold almost all of our furniture and possessions before we left Canada. Essentially, we can pick up and move at anytime to anyplace because we do not have anything tying us down. That touches on one of the themes of Miles’ novel: do our possessions make us happy? Or do they tie us down? And what really happens when you don’t want something anymore, whether it is food waste, a certain lifestyle, or relationships?

Want Not is exceptionally well written, though it is not a novel everyone would enjoy. I have not read his previous novel, Dear American Airlines, but i suspect the same is true of it. I must say, however, that after reading Want Not I am interested in doing so. I particularly enjoyed the way everything came together in the end – not one big happy ending, but something much more plausible. And there is such a brilliantly written scene near the end that had me unconsciously squirming so much that my husband asked me what was wrong!

Who would like this book? Want Not is a hard hitting, gritty and philosophical novel. It reveals truths about the world that some may not wish to admit. And dare I say that this makes the novel even a light bit political? On the other hand, Want Not also shares some of the themes that Jonathan Franzen writes about. Both, I think, are concerned about the world in which we, the privileged, live in. From that point of view, I think Want Not could make a very controversial book club pick.

Non-Fiction November – Book Pairings

This week’s theme for Non-Fiction November, brought to you by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness and Lu at Regular Rumination, is pairing a non-fiction book together with a fiction book. Easy, right? That’s what I thought until I gave it a try. Shannon over at River City Reading has the list I would have liked to come up with, but didn’t. Here is my offering:

the-hivequeenbeesqueenbeemomsmean girls

The Hive by Gill Hornby. I loved this novel. It was funny and very real. Here’s my review. It was inspired by the Non-Fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. More recently, Wiseman has also published Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads. Both deal with the social pressures of fitting in. As an added bonus, I’m also including the movie Mean Girls (2004). Queen Bees and Wannabes also inspired Tina Fey to pen this movie.

Five Days at Memorial by Sherry Fink

fivedaysBy now you have no doubt heard of Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. The coverage of the book’s release in the press was thorough and exultant. The story behind the book is both startling and sensational. Five Days at Memorial presents a detailed account of what happened at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans after the infamous Hurricane Katrina.

I will not go into the details of the plight of hospital workers and patients who remained at Memorial during Katrina and the subsequent flooding aside from saying it was horrific. No rescue plan was put in place and it appears that chaos reigned. By the time the hospital was evacuated five days later an unprecedented number dead bodies lined the makeshift morgue. This book details those five days and the controversial decisions that were made.

The book is divided into two sections: during the storm and subsequent disaster and the legal battles that followed. Both sections are extremely thorough, detailed and well-researched. This is important and captivating during the disaster period, however I found the legal wranglings of the second section to be a little bit long. I admit that i skimmed portions of it. So, although I loved the book when I started it, by the time I finished I was just waiting for it to end.

As a Canadian with state funded health care, one of the things I found most shocking about the disaster was the role that for profit healthcare companies played in the way in which events unraveled. I didn’t even know that a hospital could be run as a money making venture and never considered that money would play such a crucial role in a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina.

Who would like this book? People are drawn to disasters. We like to imagine what we would do if we were even put in such adverse conditions. Five Days at Memorial certainly puts you in that position. For the entire first half of the book I was on edge, and that was a good thing. Fink transports you to New Orleans during Katrina, making you live the disaster alongside the key players at Memorial. Although this book is well suited to the general reader, it should also be a must read for anyone involved in healthcare and disaster preparedness. There are definitely lessons to be learned in Five Days at Memorial.

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

salingerDid I love this book or what? Yes, it had to do with the fact that I am intrigued by J.D. Salinger, America’s most elusive author. And yes, it might be because Franny and Zooey is one of my all time favorite books (though I don’t think I’ve read it for a good twenty years). But really, Salinger is simply a masterpiece. So well researched, so well told.

To start with, the way in which Salinger was told was new to me. Instead of writing a connected narrative based on their research, authors David Shields and Shane Salerno chose to retell Salinger’s story in the words of their interviewees. So what they have done is strung together bits and pieces from their interviews and arranged them somewhat chronologically or topically. This method tends to give a fuller picture of a reclusive and misunderstood man. Contradictory statements about Salinger stand side by side showing exactly how little is actually known about Salinger and how complex he was.

Shields’ and Salerno’s research also goes a great distance at showing how Salinger’s life, and specifically his experiences during the war, inform his work. It is clear that he likely suffered undiagnosed PTSD and this impacted him for the rest of his life. Viewed through this perspective, light is also shed on Salinger’s interest in the Glass family and why he may have adopted them as his own family. Insight into his life also reveals why Buddhism and Vedanta may have influenced his writing so greatly.

There are juicy bits to the biography as well, including his penchant for younger women and cruelty to his family. However, this is all treated sensitively rather than salaciously. Not that the authors are making excuses for Salinger, more that they are explaining his behavior from various points of view.

I found that the book got a little off track when looking into the influence Catcher In the Rye had on a number of young, violent men, including Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr. Interesting though that section was, it tread a little too far from what we know or are trying to figure out about Salinger.

Who would like this book? Clearly this book is for the Salinger fan. Though knowledge of Salinger’s major works is not necessary to the reading, it certainly helps. And more importantly, Salinger sheds important light on his shorts stories and the Glass family. For someone interested in a more casual look at Salinger may be interested in Shields and Salerno’s documentary that was release simultaneously with the book. The book is a thick tome, and the documentary presumably goes into less detail.

Non-Fiction November: Be The Expert – Indian Food

nf-novemberKim at Sophisticated Dorkiness and Leslie at Regular Rumination have put together the most amazing exploration of non-fiction for the month of November. This week they are focusing on being an expert and becoming an expert. I am an expert on very few topics, but one topic I excel at is food. More specifically Indian food.

I lived in India for almost two years and I am very picky about my Indian food. I am now living in the UK where curry is that national dish. But I like regional variations that you don’t always find at restaurants and in typical Indian food cookbooks. I’m also fascinated with stories about food and how it changes when it reaches new places. In the past couple of months I’ve found a number of books that combine narrative with recipes.

missmasalaMiss Masala: Real Indian Cooking for Busy Living by Mallika Basu. I loved this book. Basu is a young woman of Indian descent trying to make it on her own in London. She is also trying to cook food like her mom did back in India without messing up her manicure or overwhelming her neighbors with the smell of curry. Her adventures are funny and the recipes are simple because she does not have the time or energy to become a culinary goddess. She also gives great shortcuts to making really good Indian food. Being of Bengali extraction she includes a number of recipes from her home region and favorites from the South. And most importantly, she clears up many of the misconceptions Brits have about ‘curry’. Check out her website Quick Indian Cooking for a sample of her humor and great recipes for all occasions

urban-rajahIn the same vein is Ivor Peters The Urban Rajah’s Curry Memoirs. Like Basu, Peters craved the good home cooking he had in India, but couldn’t find it in the many Curry Houses of the UK. I have not had enough time to really sit down with the book yet and try the recipes, but it looks like a great read. It is filled with pictures of Peters’ family from the 1970’s and 80’s that make it humorous if nothing else. The book is a memoir of growing up South Asian in England in that time period. And it is also filled with secret recipes that his family brought with them to the UK and adapted to their new surroundings. Again, check out his website, the Urban Rajah for a sense of what the book is like.

settler's-cookbookThe Settler’s Cookbook by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown tells a more fraught story than the other two. It recounts the story of a family of Indian descent living in Uganda until their expulsion by Idi Amin in the early 1970’s and their relocation to England. It is a story of colonialism and its failings, oppression and immigration. For all that, however, it is not a dry or overly serious memoir. That is because the books is also filled with recipes brought from India to Uganda and adapted and then to England and adapted again.

Fractures by Lamar Herrin

fracturesLamar Herrin is a writer who I probably should have known about before now. He has written six novels, has had short fiction published in all the right places and taught Creative Writing at Cornell. Yet, I must admit that I had never heard of him before I picked up Fractures.

Given what I have read about Herrin’s background, I am not sure that this is the most representative of his works. More than anything else Fractures appears to have been written with a very clear agenda: to explore the ultimately negative impact fracking for natural gas has on a family, a community and the environment. Although Herrin attempts to show multiple perspectives in his narrative, the novel comes off as an indictment of the fracking that is now taking place in parts of the United States.

Putting Herrin’s political views aside, Fractures was also a story of a fractured family, a patriarch and his slightly dysfunctional offspring. The family angle he brings in has garnered comparisons to The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, though I would not put the two in the same category. I found the characters to be weak, almost stereotypes. Their names did not help the situation either: there was a Jenny, her boyfriend Kenny and son Danny. All sounds a little too similar for my tastes.

If you do pick up Fractures, the ending will not disappoint. In fact, it and the opening scene were the sole factors that redeemed the novel in my eyes. It is here more than any other place that I believe Herrin lives up to his reputation. The imagery, writing and tension is unparalleled in the rest of the book.

Who would like this book? Fractures could very well make a good book club pick. The topic is very timely and everyone seems to have something to say about fracking, the environment and energy consumption. The novel has an agenda, and depending on where you stand on such issues it could provide some heated debate. It would be a fascinating read for a car trip in the area of the Marcellus Shale, that is New York state, Pennsylvania down to Virginia. Fractures also paints a very real picture of America in times of transition. In years to come it may be interesting to read this novel to see what we were like.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

BellmanandBlackBellman and Black is Diane Setterfield‘s much awaited and anticipated follow up to her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. Like her previous work, Bellman and Black is a rather dark, gothic tale. At the age of ten, William Bellman kills a rook with his catapult or sling shot in a long shot. That rook comes to haunt him for the rest of his life in various forms.

Based on such a description, Bellman and Black does not really seem like my type of book. My expectations for it were not that high. The only reason I read it was because Setterfield’s previous book was so wonderful. In spite of my lowered expectation, Bellman and Black was a surprisingly good read. To me this is due to Setterfield’s writing. From the first pages, reading Bellman and Black felt like slipping into a pair of perfectly worn in shoes. To be frank, the bare bones of the story appear to be quite boring to me, yet her writing made me keep reading. Did I need to know that much about mill work and the fabric industry of the late 1800’s? No, but I soon became as obsessed with it as William Bellman.

In fact Bellman’s character development throughout the book may have been the thread that really held this book together for me. His transformation from an underdog type character, someone who you are really rooting for, into a haunted and single minded man was convincingly depicted. And though tragedy filled his life, there was not an overly tragic feeling to the story.

Who would like this book? As I mentioned before, this is a rather dark and gothic tale. If that is what attracted you to The Thirteenth Tale, then this book will scratch that itch. I also think lovers of historical fiction will enjoy it. I found the details relating to Spanish influenza, cloth production and funerary practices to be quite enlightening. Bellman and Black would also be a good book club pick for the literary minded. It is filled with symbolism, much of which I likely missed. I really hate that some books are labelled as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘men’s fiction’, but I do think this is one that can truly span both categories. In spite of being written by a woman, it is a story of a male world.

I was provided with the book by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.