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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    More Good Books

    Next Episode Hubert Aquin, Sheila Fischman translation; McClelland & Stewart $6.00

    Next EpisodeTrust Radió Canada to promote, in its culturally balanced way, a 1965 novel by a martyred French-Canadian author to the winner of its Canada Reads program. The book itself is a depiction of the chaos of psychosis that any who have seen the edge in ourselves or in our closest others will appreciate. 

    The writing is the overly intellectualized style that is firmly 60’s. That revolution and the preciously contrived verbiage used, all seemed so relevant when read through a hallucinogenic haze. Still, someone who digs up words like “paginated” to describe a bed is trying too hard. Couple this with the movie sound track-like recurrent reference to Desafinado to layer on a gloss of syrupy romanticism, and we really are reading an historic document. A snapshot capturing the Quebec Revolution era which produced Trudeau, Laporte, FLQ, War Measures and Parti Quebecois. Relevant? Of course, and reading Canadian history via an entertaining novel is most palatable.  Aquin does word-paint some great images. The opening paragraph has to be rated as one of the best.

    Life of Pi Yann Martel, Vintage Canada (Random House) $18.00

    Life of Pi“Story telling at its best!” shout the cover blurbs and, for once, a true commentary. If you conjecture an absurdly impossible scenario, like 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, and successfully create a plausible survival strategy, this is great story telling. Mix zoo animal behaviorism with the relevance of religion with the irrelevance of sex and with the desperate tenacity of the human will to survive to create, ‘Life of Pi’. Engaging on many levels and entertaining, this novel and Martel’s conversationally flowing style will not date him to an era. Nominate this book for a “Hemingway” in classic story telling fiction.


    Sarah Binks Paul Hiebert, New Canadian Library (McClelland & Stewart) $8.00

    Sarah BinksHow well does humour travel through the decades? Sarah Binks is a relentless lampoon of vapid academia coupled with a gentler poke at the characters of prairie farm culture. This 1947 Steven Leacock winning humour is as dry as a Saskatchewan dust storm. Today’s humour is more blatant and “wetter”. Hiebert started his academic career with degrees in Philology (the Science of Language), moved to other sciences, and ended with a professorship of Chemistry. Is Sarah Binks the result of his early disillusion with Philology? The academic canonization of authors, so cynically derided here, is a reminder of A.S Byatt’s “Possession” and the recent discovery of a lost Virginia Wolfe diary (where the publication boasts an annotation three times the length of the recovered diary). But, we will probably always require Ph.D. theses to tell us why we are enjoying a writer. For those of us being psychologically unable to read it cover to cover, we can relegate this little book to the “reading room”, finding entertainment by checking in for a page or two.

     The Colony of Unrequited Dreams Wayne Johnston, Vintage Canada $18.00

    ColonyThis novel of the life of Joey Smallwood is a smoothly flowing read up until Joey becomes Premier. This is the point where the story becomes almost perfunctory.

    It is like Johnston felt that once on the seat of power, Smallwood was no longer the romantic under-dog protagonist. The reader is now drawn to pull the “true” Smallwood out of the fiction (suggest reading Richard Gwyn and J.S. himself). The first pop-up is that Gwyn, in his factual biography, gives a much better picture of how and why Joey’s speeches were so effective. Unrequited Dreams gives us a picture of his training in Harlem but fails to capture the essence of his method, which was, “Tell them what you are going to say, say it, tell them what you said.” Smallwood was a socialist of convenience at his political beginning. He was in fact an emotional populist and the Socialist, Liberal or Conservative banners were largely irrelevant. He always ran for the Joey Smallwood Party.

    The fact that, in his opposition to the IWA and Teamsters, the young courageous union organizer of Johnston’s book became the author of some of the most draconian anti-union legislation in Canada is totally avoided in Unrequited Dreams.

    This book’s running sub-plot of Sheilagh Fielding creates a fictionalized voice to interpret Smallwood’s life and teach Newfoundland's history. The novel is the Newfoundlander Hero portion of a blundering, blustering, bullying life. While this initiates many of us into the history and psyche of Newfoundlanders, if you want portraits of the people, Donna Morrissey’s books Kit’s Law and Down Hill Chance are much better reads.

     The Lost Garden Helen Humphreys, Harper Flamingo Canada, hardcover $22.00

    The Lost GardenA bittersweet little book of longing, loss and faith, Humphreys’ novel shows an enviable language craftsmanship and creates a succinct read. A fear of sentimental clutter seems to prune the story to the stems.

    A bit more emotional depth and even a plot extension pursuing, to discovery, the creator of the garden, would have added a bit more meat to this vignette. Still there are many word couplets that will make you pause to probe the depths implied. Humphreys gives an excellent portrayal of loss as a thing apart: a trait, a condition of being--not a burden but a presence like breathing. The horticultural analogies are adequately explained but being a gardener helps one to envision the plants, settings and emotions. A touch of cynicism about Virginia Wolfe citing, but here the reference relevantly under-paints the portrait of the protagonist. A nice little book that went by too quickly.


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