Sunday, December 11, 2011

“Here’s Mike”

By Mike McCardell
These days every news outlet has its “salter”. That’s the industry term for the on-camera person who’s so sensitive to the little wonders around him/her, that they’re always stopping and smelling the flowers and then shoving them into everyone else’s face. (The term “salter” comes from an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” where news anchor Ted Baxter, after surviving a heart attack, begins to appreciate the wonders of everything – starting with grains of salt.)
“Hey Mike”, by Mike McCardell (who’s been smelling the flowers for a local TV station for some time now) is full of salt - the minutia and ephemera others might miss. He’s a nicer Mickey Rooney. In the internet age of the nanosecond attention span, a book of McCardell’s meanderings would seem iffy but in execution it reads like letters from a friend (although the best thing McCardell ever did was catch a litterbug in the act - and on camera - and confront him, turning the segment into both a public service announcement and a “Judge Judy”).
Sure, the audience for “Hey Mike” is likely to be blue-haired and bingo-playing, but it’s a book that everyone can read – and appreciate. Maybe little “wow”s and shared “guess what I saw today”s are the new tradition of oral storytelling. “Hey Mike” solidifies McCardell as the God of Little Things.

Monday, November 21, 2011

“The Chuck Davis History of Vancouver”

By Chuck Davis
ISBN No. 978-1-55017-533-2

Vancouver is hot – in realty, on TV and on the bookshelves. Homes are worth $1 million, hit TV shows are filmed on our sidewalks, and not one but two – that’s TWO! – major books about the city are being released this season. The first, another book of photographs by Fred Herzog, should be the heavyweight. Famous for his heartbreaking Technicolor shots of Vancouver in the 50s and 60s (when everyone else was shooting in black-and-white) his new book is wisely called simply “Photographs” because only a few of the shots are of Vancouver – and they were included in his first book. That disappointing double-dip makes Harbour Press’ blockbuster-sized “The Chuck Davis History of Vancouver” the real thing this season – and then some; it’s an elegiac last work by the late “folk historian”, and a majestic valentine to the city he loved.
And there’s a lot here to love.
There’s the news piece about how the first badges for the Vancouver City Police were made of American silver dollars and a story about the Hallelujah Lassies – four ladies who launched what became the Salvation Army in 1887. There’s the factoid about how the fire department hauled their own engines to and from the fires until they got horses in 1889, and an article about the fire that destroyed ALL of Vancouver…in just 45 minutes. This is one book where the stories are share-with-a-friend-worthy and the words are as fascinating as the haunting black-and-white pictures that accompany them. And certainly there’s the poignancy of Davis’ death to put a thoughtful period (literally) on the project. In an age where old homes in Vancouver are going for a million dollars and being turned into generic monster houses worth twice that, “The Chuck Davis History of Vancouver” is more than just a publishing event. It’s a document that’ll be studied decades from now to find out what kind of people we were.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

“West Coast Wrecks & Other Maritime Tales”

By Rick James
ISBN No. 978-1-55017-545-5
www.harbourpublishing .com
Herman Melville ends “Moby-Dick” with a line about a shipwreck at sea where suddenly everything falls in on itself, is swallowed by the water, and the sea rolls on as it had for 5,000 years. Wow…
There’s a mystery in the idea of a shipwreck that transcends the TV punchline of people stranded on, and voting each other off, a deserted island. Of course, there’s the cruise ship/paradise aspect of the sea, and all that “Pirates of the Caribbean” silliness for the ADD generation. And unless you’re running for Republican office the sea is that primordial pool from which all life – even sushi! - came. Archaeologist Rick James knows all this and he unpacks an engrossing – that’s right! – treasure trove of 140+ years of maritime disasters, sailing folklore, and finally, definitively explains why British Columbia’s nudist retreat is named Wreck Beach. The book is like a baker’s dozen of Titanics and is as addictive as TV’s “The Deadliest Catch.” The black-and-white pictures are appropriate for the eras (late 1800s and early 1900s) and amp up the little asides that’ll roll around your head for days after reading (like when evacuating a burning ship was hindered because the Chinese employees didn’t speak English).

“Lost Memory of Skin”

By Russell Banks
ISBN No. 978-0-307-40173-1
This novel could be made up of headlines: “Youth Sex Offender Lives under causeway”, “University Professor exploits sex offender youth”, “university professor has secrets of his own.” Then – no spoiler alert here – each of those headlines is rolled out and folded into the developing plot in the same way that modern media “advances” a story: characters are cast, secrets are revealed, lives are redeemed or destroyed. That might seem calculated but given the demands of publishing these days (books need to be topical, readable and, most of all, marketable) even well-established writers are looking to the cultural zeitgeist and publisher’s publicist for their inspiration. Reading this book I kept thinking I was researching a story ABOUT the story in the book. Was this Russell Banks’ intention? (Some of the same themes – albeit litigiously – were covered in “The Sweet Hereafter.”) The only thing that kept reminding me it was a novel – and a good one - was the author’s trademark dour dialogue and drawn-out description. Few serious writers are as seriously talented as Russell Banks.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

“The Leftovers”

By Tom Perrotta
ISBN No. 978-0-307-35638-3

Tom Perrotta’s previous books were about high school politics (“Election”; great book, great movie), an extramarital affair (“Little Children”; great book, awful movie) and a censored sex education teacher (“The Abstinence Teacher”; great book, soon-to-be a movie). A reviewer called Perrotta “an American Chekhov” and the title fits. His view on the lives of quiet desperation being endured by your neighbours reaffirms your belief that literature still exists in a world where even the idiots from “Jersey Shore” publish books (books!) in the pursuit of media domination. It was only a matter of time before Perrotta took (another?) aim at evangelical American politics. As such, the title and plot of “The Leftovers” is depressingly appropriate. It’s vintage Perrotta, for sure (terrifically written with the most natural dialogue in books today) but it’s also an uneasy visit to Chuck Palahniuk territory (painstakingly detailed and weird for weird’s sake). When some Mapleton townsfolk suddenly disappear “POOF!”-style, the leftovers (or those “Left Behind” – to use the name of a series of movies about The Rapture made by a former child actor from TV’s “Growing Pains”) wonder if the explanation is scientific or religious, and adjust their lives belief-wise. In new mayor Kevin Garvey’s house, that includes his wife joining a homespun cult called the Guilty Remnant, his son trailing after a charlatan prophet called Holy Wayne, and the possibility of a new romance with a woman whose whole family went POOF!
What results is what usually results when a writer writes about religion – especially new sects. Perrotta spends so much text laying down – and then reminding us of - the ground rules of his story’s premise that the reader really works for that payoff at the end of an especially long paragraph about The Unburdening. Yes, it’s frequently hilarious, but sometimes you really do feel like The Leftover who “couldn’t sit still for lectures…the professor’s words blurred into a meaningless drone, a sluggish river of pretentious phrases.” Perhaps religion is already so melodramatic that it’s become un-parodyable.
Still, this is Tom Perrotta and the book is both a smart hoot and a witty indictment of the hypocrisy and stupidity that freely flows around our culture courtesy of too many internet connections, too many stupid people, and too few reliable news sources. The disappeared of the book aren’t just the figments of our religious culture, but also the smarts of a dying literature, as well as “The Disappeared” (to quote the title of Kim Echlin’s book) of far-flung exotic locales where young men and women just go missing for seemingly no reason at all and no one with any power seems to care. Perhaps the most distressing lesson learned from “The Leftovers” is how anyone envisioning a world of constructive thought, of actual ideas, a place where the Tom Perrottas of our world publish frequently and freely, is likely to be rewarded, instead, with a society still mired in the political dark ages of Fox News.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

“Money Boy”

By Paul Yee
ISBN No. 978-1-55498-093-2

It’s an unspoken rule in children’s books that no one goes all the way. Of course, in real life young people really do have sex. But first times for the poor put-upon youth of kid lit are almost always interrupted by religious guilt, fears of pregnancy, meddlesome parents or dateless sidekicks; all the better to second-guess, come to your senses, and realize you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.
Fifteen year-old Ray Liu has his whole life ahead of him too – as everyone keeps telling him. As a new immigrant to Toronto he’s still learning English. As the leader of the online game, “Rebel State,” he’s learning about honour and teamwork. As a closeted gay youth he’s learning about cultural homophobia - especially when his army veteran Dad evicts him after discovering he’s gay.
Like any young gaysian he heads to Toronto’s Chinatown. “The first time we came here,” he recalls, “I was surprised at how big this district was, full of Chinese restaurants, Chinese stores and Chinese people. I thought, if people want to do Chinese business and buy Chinese groceries, then they should stay in China!”
After he’s beaten and robbed he realizes/rationalizes that becoming a prostitute couldn’t be that bad, could it? Like an actor, athlete or model, he’s just going to use his body to make money. “I feel as though I am in a jerky fast-forward video,” he says. “Monday I get kicked out of the house. Blippety-blip. Tuesday I am homeless at a shelter. Blippety-blip. Wednesday I dine with a drag queen. Thursday I sell my body. Blippety-blip.” But will Ray second-guess himself, come to his senses, and realize he’s got his whole life ahead of him BEFORE it’s too late?
I’m not going to tell you what Ray does, but by the last third of the book he’s saying, “if the thief who stole my laptop could break into my skull and steal the last sixty minutes of my life, I would pay him well.”
After enduring the endless courtship of the vampire genre’s erotically neutered tweens (please no e-mails) it’s a pleasant surprise to read about young people who are actually interested in sex – and aware of its exploitation. Maybe Paul Yee (“Ghost Train”, “Dead Man’s Gold”) is the only writer sensitive and reckless enough to handle a reality that many parents wouldn’t want their children to know exists. He beautifully captures both the narcissism of youth (Ray is equally desperate for food, shelter and to “get back to Rebel State. Players are waiting for me to lead the fight against the guerrilla war”) as well as the cultural tyranny faced by both young immigrants and older gay men (“Younger men laughing in a circle, they’re a fortress with no door. A stranger can walk around them and around them and never find an opening”). For a book about the oldest profession seen through new eyes FOR young readers, “Money Boy” is nothing less than astonishing. It’s perhaps Yee’s best book yet.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

“Tragedy on Jackass Mountain: More Stories from a Small-Town Mountie”

By Charles Scheideman
ISBN No. 978-1-55017-550-9

It sure didn’t sound promising: a former RCMP Sergeant corners you and proceeds to tell you all about his “adventures” in tiny town B.C. But given the RCMP’s recent headlines (taser deaths, unnecessary roughness, shoplifting; yes, shoplifting!), hearing about the time he helped a big moose get across a quiet street constitutes first-degree boredom. But darned if – metaphor alert! - TOJM doesn’t pull you over and arrest you with tales that sound more “Twin Peaks” than “Northern Exposure.” The book is divided into 30+ chapters, each one detailing a specific case investigated by the author. It should sound dry and clinical – and it does (the book’s few black-and-white pictures are of valley vistas; how “crime-scene”). But then you slowly realize you’re being invited into solving a mystery too and what you thought was the author’s direct approach is actually something you haven’t seen enough of in literature lately: being talked to as if you’re a thinking human being. No werewolves. No vampires. No pyrotechnic prose. Here, story is all – and it’s a wonder to behold. The writing is so elegant, ominous and measured – with nary a trace of pretension - that an open-and-shut case about the on-the-job deaths of two lumberjacks (years apart but under oddly similar circumstances) becomes the most involving mystery ever. As the tales pile up there’s something cumulatively, eerily, satisfyingly “epic” about this book. Herman Melville said “Moby-Dick” was about man’s inability to govern nature. James Dickey said “Deliverance” was about man raping the environment. And in the hard, rustic climates and locations, the cases recounted in “Tragedy on Jackass Mountain” are a compelling catalogue of nature exacting some awful revenge on the men and industries that dare to clear cut the woods – and the men hired to keep some semblance of law in them.

Monday, April 11, 2011

“Today, Maybe”

By Dominique Demers and Gabrielle Grimard
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-400-6

The introspective, reflective medium of print has always had a problem when it comes to younger readers. Inside a child’s head is a dangerous place to be. First impressions solidify into lifelong perceptions and emerging emotions permanently merge with dramatic storylines. The best example of this is the unexpected (?) demonizing of foreigners when a writer gives her story’s evil characters with unusual names. But with mainstream non-fiction addressing loneliness as a lifelong condition “Today, Maybe” – about a girl whose “only treasure was her one hundred favorite books” choosing imaginary friendships with literary characters over real people – is both the hot button book of the moment and a hopeful sign that kid lit is evolving as fast as the internet. This is a lovely little book – with bite. Yes, it’s “just” a children’s book full of famous friendly/frightening heroes (wicked witches, princes, wolves) that entertain bored children, but it’s also a book of epic perspective. It evokes everything from the plot of “Where the Wild Things Are” (a child’s solitary daydream), Sartre’s comment that “hell is other people” and a line from “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”: “I’m alone, not lonely.” Of course, that’s a fat interpretation of a very slim picture book – but it’s also a big recommendation. Ideal for children and perfect for parents who actually like to connect with their kids, “Today, Maybe” is as much about a lifelong love of literature as it is about the importance of a rich imagination.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

“She Said/She Saw”

By Norah McClintock
ISBN No. 978-1-55469-335-1

By the time you get to the line “…if you want to get the whole story…you need to pull the pieces together,” that comes maybe two pages into this book about the faulty memory of a witness to a gangland-style slaying, you realize you’re in the grip of a serious storyteller. When the narrator finishes her introduction with: “Here are the pieces,” we’re hooked. The “She Saw” part of this book is Tegan, the witness/survivor of a shooting that claimed two of her friends. The “She Said” part of this book is Tegan’s shaky recollection about the shooting. She says she doesn’t know why her friends were targeted, why she was spared or even who did the shooting. She also worries that the killer might come back to finish her off. No one believes her, of course. Even her sister, Kelly, is suspicious. She details and catalogues the facts in an effort to learn the truth – even if it incriminates Tegan. Because Kelly sees life “like a movie or a TV drama, or, sometimes, a comedy” parts of the story are told in the form of a screenplay. No spoiler alert here! All I’m going to say is that “She Said/She Saw” a triple good read of a suspenseful thriller – for kids (the book’s audience is aged 12+) and adults. Its topic is timely, its characters flawed but smart, and the screenplay format a great introduction to the discipline.

Friday, February 18, 2011

“My Korean Deli”

By Ben Ryder Howe
ISBN No. 978-0-385-66412-7

Now this – THIS – is a memoir! Forget all those whinefests about escaping the Nazis and recovering from a meth addiction, “My Korean Deli” is “The Godfather” of corner stores. The premise is right out of a TV sitcom: It all starts when Howe’s wife (the daughter of Korean immigrants) buys her Mom a convenience store. When Mom can’t keep the business going, it falls to Howe and his own Mrs. to run it. What follows is the American class struggle squared: In bleakly hilarious and yet thoughtful prose, Howe explains how he edited The Paris Review by day (alongside George Plimpton) and then sold lottery tickets and bologna by night. What makes “My Korean Deli” such a good read is that it seemingly covers all genres of entertainment. There’s the fish-out-of-water premise: At first, Howe writes, “It seems unreal to be on the other side of the checkout counter.” Then there’s the cost of doing business in a mercilessly political correct marketplace (the coffee has to be from “ecologically responsible land tenure systems in countries that provide universal pre-K-through-3 education and have no military.”). And finally, there’s the suspenseful power struggle: the threat of two new convenience stores in the same neighbourhood. It should all read like a really long magazine article but Howe turns his tiny, intimate story into an engrossing epic about the changing face of American culture.

“When Apples Grew Noses and White Horses Flew”

By Jan Andrews
ISBN No. 978-0-88899-952-8

“When Apples Grew Noses…” follows the everyday yet fantastical adventures of a foreign fairy tale everyman named Ti-Jean (the introduction wisely explains that Ti-Jean is like “Jack” in the fairy tales most of us remember: a projection of our myriad selves, and whose past changes to accompany whatever story he’s in). In the three tales here Ti-Jean outwits “a greedy princess”, “a pint-sized scoundrel” and a young woman “too clever for her own good.” In short, he’s a karmic Better Business Bureau, evening up the score in places referred to as the “New World” while being faithful to the Old Country style of oral history storytelling. And unlike a lot of oral history, the stories here seem to have actually improved with each airing: plots make sense, characters are smart, and the moral lesson isn’t always obvious. And when it is – as in the case of a fiddle that’s both inspirational and magical – it evokes touches of the Pied Piper that’ll be appreciated long after the stories are finished.

Friday, January 21, 2011

By Teresa Duran; Illustrations by Elena Val
ISBN No. 978-1-55498-098-7

By Maxine Trottier; Illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault
ISBN No. 978-0-88899-975-7

Both available at

The first lines of “Benedict” are very disturbing. They tell us that the little boy of the book’s title “lives in a very hot place. It is red, red, red.” And in case you didn’t get the point of all that red, Elena Val draws you a picture: battling snakes, pitchforks, and the gaping maws of hell itself. Your mouth will be gaping too when you consider that “Benedict” is about a kid living in H E double hockey sticks – but only until you realize that “Benny” is actually tired of seeing all that red. So with one springy coil of his tail (just picture the slingshot on the iPhone app “Angry Birds”) he vaults himself from a red place to a white one (the North Pole). Here everything is cold and snowy. Another “sproing!” and Benny is in the desert where everything is yellow. And so on and so on, until he’s visited earth’s whole colour scheme. “Benedict” is a cute book – and a conversation piece. I would have enjoyed it more had Teresa Duran set the whole story in various imaginary places (religious zealots, no e-mails please) and the book’s font more rousing than rudimentary.
“Migrant” is even more to the point. It’s the story of a Mennonite/Mexican child named Anna who travels north with her family each Spring to work on farms harvesting fruits and vegetables. Speaking patchy “Low German” or “Plautdietsch”, Anna doesn’t make new friends; she just tries to acclimatize herself to the new culture. At the supermarket she “listens to all the voices – to the woman with pink hair at the cash register, to the tattooed men who put cans on the shelves. But she only understands some of their words. Dollars. Peas. Meatballs.” With a child’s-eye view the book compares her life with that of a bird or rabbit migrating north each Spring and then south in the Fall. There’s Anna’s observation of her mother making “a home of yet another empty farmhouse, the rooms filled with the ghosts of last year’s workers.” Her sisters sleep in one bed, her brothers in another. In a year when immigration is a hot-button election topic, “Migrant” should be a hot-button book – and it is. It’s just so culturally sensitive and beautifully told that it’s hard to take exception with its closing message that migrants “be treated with the same respect that is extended to citizens and visitors alike.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"The Guardians"

By Andrew Pyper
ISBN No. 978-0-385-66371-7

Trivia quiz: Remember “Sleepers”? The 1996 best seller about four men who conspire to kill a guard who molested them when they were juvenile delinquents? It was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. Remember the 2003 best seller “Mystic River”? It was about the abduction of a boy, his return, and a murder and made into a movie starring Sean Penn. And what about “The Secret History”? Do you remember that book? It was about cookie-cutter college kids who try to commit the perfect murder and hasn’t been made into a movie yet. No problem if you missed them. This year’s version of “Sleepers”, “Mystic River” and “The Secret History” is called “The Guardians” and I’m thinking Russell Crowe would make a great lead as a Parkinsons patient returning to the scene of a crime he and three boyhood friends committed decades ago. Unfortunately, given the depressing state of movies today the part will likely go to one of the “Gossip Girl” guys.
This time the scene of the crime is a grisly town aptly named Grimshaw. The guys are reunited when one of them commits suicide and the remaining three realize that three people really can keep a secret – if two of them are dead. “I know now that you can do terrible things without an idea,” one of them writes in his Memory Diary. “You can do them without feeling it’s really you doing them.” And in that one sentence Pyper sums up the thoughtless crimes of youth; his book becomes a “Crime and Punishment” x 4. But “The Guardians” is also a character study about WHY kids do awful things and then say they don’t know why they did what they did. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about just watch a few episodes of “Judge Judy” when she grills a stupid teen about his/her DUI.) Giving his lead character Parkinsons is a nice touch (literally; doorknobs feel like a “ball of ice”) even if it reminds you of the pulpy vulnerabilities Stephen King favours for his own characters (it seems like someone in every King novel has asthma). Pyper is a better writer, though (no nasty e-mails, please). There’s something epic about “The Guardians” – and not in a populist, corny way. The ground it covers should feel well-tread and obvious and yet it instead feels fresh, inventive and engaging. For instance, a Grimshaw restaurant is underlit not for ambience “but to hide whatever crunches underfoot on the carpet.” “The Guardians” is a psychological thriller with actual idiosyncratic smarts.