#9 – The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy

Please excuse me for some vagueness, and if I make some minor factual errors. Immediately after finishing The Jade Peony, I loaned it to my mother to read, and since she lives in Waterloo and I’m now back at home in Toronto, I’m unable to have it in front of me while I write this (and I don’t take notes while I read). So: I once wrote on this blog that I’m not interested in literature as social work, and I’m certainly not interested in an author behaving like my case worker, and that’s what a lot of The Jade Peony felt like to me. I wasn’t just supposed to be reading a decent novel about Chinese people, I was supposed to be absorbing a culture, learning about history, becoming a better person. Like broccoli, it wasn’t actually bad, but knowing it was supposed to be good for me made… Continue Reading

#8 – Moody Food, by Ray Robertson

I didn’t like the music in this book. This may sound like a piddling thing, but it’s not, really. Ray Robertson writes ecstatically about music, with a gift that’s difficult to match outside of Rolling Stone‘s better moments, and like all such writing, it can make you hear the music in new ways. Or if you’re particularly musically literate (as I am—I couldn’t tell you how much music I have all totaled, but there’s about 54 days of continuous, no-repeat listening on my hard drive, and that doesn’t even begin to touch my CD collection, which hit 500 albums before I finished high school) it can make you want to shake the writer out of his blind stupidity. Or it can do both. I can’t say I care much for country music. A long, long time ago, there was no such thing. There was just American folk music, what people… Continue Reading

#7 – Nikolski, by Nicolas Dickner

When I was doing my bachelor’s degree, one of my summer jobs was working Confined Space Safety Watch (known colloquially as Hole Watch) for the Weyerhaeuser pulp and paper mill in Dryden. The job was pretty simple. The mill would shut down for ten days of the annual top-to-bottom maintenance period, a lot of workers, both contract and union, would have to crawl into some very cramped spaces to work, and often those spaces were dangerous. My job was to put on a tonne of heavy gear, grab a first aid/emergency rescue pack and a walkie talkie, and sit outside a confined space for twelve hours a day making sure nobody died. I worked in the bleach plant, the recovery boiler, the chemical plant, flak dryers, precipitators, black and green liquor tanks, and a few places I can’t remember the names for. I did it two years in a row… Continue Reading

#6 – How Happy to Be, by Katrina Onstad

I’m not entirely clear on why, but this book reminded me a lot of Fits Like A Rubber Dress, by Roxane Ward, which I read back in 2008. But here’s the thing: How Happy to Be only had a handful of superficial things in common with Rubber Dress. The experimentation with sex and drugs that finally kept Ward’s book from being a total waste of time is just the jumping off point for Katrina Onstad, and it doesn’t take more than a paragraph or two to see that she’s drinking from a deeper well. Onstad’s characters have tried hedonism themselves, and while it was the solution to some problems, it wasn’t without problems of its own, an idea Ward barely dipped her toe in. But I don’t mean to make this into a ninth grade compare and contrast. Maxime isn’t shallow, stupid, or fame-obsessed, but like the smart kid in… Continue Reading

#5 – Fall On Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald

It’s not difficult to see why Fall On Your Knees was chosen for Oprah’s book club. It’s not a bad book, but neither is it a particularly good one (I’m not sorry I’ve read it, but I wouldn’t ever actually say to someone “hey, you should read this book”), and it has all the features that a big, serious, meaty family drama/epic is supposed to have. There’s a family without a lot of money in a remote village a long time ago, a great romance with disastrous consequences, a great talent nurtured and then prematurely snuffed, any number of lives lived in quiet desperation, a miraculous child, an abusive husband/father, some heartbreaking death. Very little humour, and some modern characters dressed up in period clothes so they can chafe against their fate of being born in a time before they could be accepted for who they are. It’s a very… Continue Reading

#4 – Century, by Ray Smith

The wonderful Dr. Sarah Tolmie, whom I’ve mentioned at least once before on this blog, was a professor of mine at the University of Waterloo—my Honours Essay supervisor, in fact (what we at UW referred to as the “Undergraduate Thesis”). In addition to teaching me a great deal about my field, she directed me toward the work of Iris Murdoch, and later, an obscure little novel called Lord Nelson Tavern. She recommended it to me while I was spending a summer alone in Sudbury. My girlfriend was up North working, while I had just moved into a new apartment, and didn’t even have a telephone or Internet connection yet. I was, however, making effective use of the Sudbury Public Library. Lord Nelson Tavern, as it turns out, was by Canadian author Ray Smith, and though I promptly forgot both his name and the title of his book, I never forgot… Continue Reading

#3 – Generation X, by Douglas Coupland

I first read Generation X when I was fifteen (so, 1994), a blue collar kid in a blue collar town. I don’t remember much about it except for my reaction. I hated it. “Hate” might even be too mild a word. I don’t know that I’ve ever had as strongly negative a reaction to a book as I had to this one, and I’ve had some pretty strong negative reactions. My thoughts on it then could be summarized in this statement: yuppies who think they aren’t yuppies complain about how hard their lives are. But fifteen years is a long time, and panelist Roland Pemberton (aka Cadence Weapon) has chosen to defend Generation X on Canada Reads. I’ve revisited other books from my past with positive results, why not with this one? And the verdict is in! I still hate Generation X. I still hate it a lot, in fact.… Continue Reading

Canada Reads

I’ve never participated in Canada Reads before. I’d like to say that sometimes my reading schedule doesn’t allow for it, or that I’m not interested in the books, but the truth is that, while I really believe in the value of my job and the project I work on (which I’d rather not discuss the specifics of), I don’t make very much money, and buying all those books at once is far and away beyond my means. Not unless I can find them used or remaindered, of course, and good luck with that. Toronto’s used bookstores are picked clean the day after the titles are announced. Usually. This year things are different. Kerry Clare is running a concurrent programme, called Canada Reads: Independently, in part as a response to the criticism that this year’s lineup for the CBC event only features books that have already received considerable attention here in… Continue Reading