Author Archives: Vicki Ziegler

New Tab, by Guillaume Morissette

New Tab, by Guillaume Morissette

For days after finishing New Tab by Guillaume Morissette, I kept thinking Thomas’ friend Shannon might pop up on Facebook chat. That’s how disarmingly, perhaps unwittingly, authentic the characters are in this book. That authenticity is especially surprising given that Thomas, Shannon and their shifting circle of roommates, workmates, classmates and various acquaintances are often just disembodied virtual entities, to each other and to the reader.

Morissette’s quietly witty novel is set in up to the moment Montreal and traces a year in the life of 27-year-old (well, somewhat inexplicably 26 to his ostensible friends and colleagues) Thomas, a disaffected video game designer looking languidly and yearningly, but not without an undercurrent of genuine determination, to change career and personal directions. Against a blurred-around-the-edges backdrop of dodgy accommodations, fleeting and vague relationships, substance over-consumption (it’d be harsh to call it abuse because it seems so tinged with a kind of innocence), Thomas makes his way. The reader peeks over Thomas’ shoulder at email and Facebook chat clues as to how he progresses, professionally and emotionally.

Thomas’ wit is wistful but rich and constant – a defense mechanism for a psyche both gently bewildered and perhaps singed around the edges from too much time spent online, and an ongoing, rueful delight for the reader, with gems such as:

“My approach with women was like stacking blocks really high in Tetris while waiting for a straight line that might never come.”

“It felt like I was trying to use social networks as a way to prototype myself.”

“Staring at my computer screen, I suddenly wanted to fold my Facebook into an origami crane.”

Morissette keeps the structure of New Tab loose, balancing Thomas’ frequently distracted state of mind while not creating a haphazard or unsatisfactory reading experience. The novel charmingly mixes the epistolary with instances where characters do reach across the static to try to connect, however awkwardly and tentatively. As much as the prevalence of digital communication (or miscommunication) seems to position New Tab as a kind of Virtual Reality Bites, in other respects, the form of correspondence is perhaps irrelevant – just that Thomas and his cohorts are corresponding and trying to communicate is key. In fact, New Tab and the likes of Pride and Prejudice share some literary kinship.

Finally, Thomas stumbles upon a connection between his current vocation and his aspirations:

The more I thought about it, the more I felt like video games and poems had a lot in common. They both tended to take themselves seriously, without caring whether or not the player or reader would be accepting them on those terms. In the story mode of any given Call of Duty, part of the pleasure, for me, came from making fun of the game as I played it, for taking itself so seriously. I sometimes experienced a similar kind of disconnect when reading poems, between the emotional landscape of the poem and my emotional landscape while reading it.

Video games were also often about the player achieving salvation, while poems were often about the speaker achieving salvation.

In the suddenly cinematic last few pages of New Tab, Thomas is propelled into the rest of his life. It feels like the Tetris blocks are falling swiftly and neatly. He is poised to open perhaps the most important new tab of all. The expectations might be downplayed, but you wish him well and kind of hope he pops up on chat or sends you an event invitation for his next poetry reading or book launch sometime in future.

An added delight of New Tab is another arresting book cover by David Drummond (the cover of Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault is a favourite). The cover of New Tab creates a wonderful sense of physical setting, with slanted transitional light, which could be early morning, or could be early evening, connoting the changes with which Thomas is contending.

See also:

Thank you to Véhicule Press for providing a review copy of New Tab by Guillaume Morisette.

Waiting For the Man, by Arjun Basu

Waiting For the Man, by Arjun Basu

Thirty-something advertising copywriter Joe doesn’t even realize something is wrong until he unwittingly turns his own professional expertise to perverse advantage on his own personal meltdown. Inexplicably disillusioned and disaffected with a career, lifestyle and life that many might find enviable, at least on the surface, Joe simply stops living that life one day and parks himself on his Manhattan stoop to wait for the Man to signal what he should do next. Who is the Man? Each reader who follows Joe’s journey in Waiting For the Man by Arjun Basu is likely to have a different answer.

Joe’s decision to wait for the Man to direct Joe’s next steps can be interpreted many ways. Is Joe paralyzed by depression, truly experiencing something otherworldly and transcendent … or what? Whatever the answer, it almost seems incidental in Basu’s pithy handling (honed by the social media equivalent of an eternity crafting striking one-tweet short stories called Twisters) of Joe’s clinical reaction to his own crisis, as he plays willing party to turning that crisis into a branding and social media event of some magnitude.

As that event starts getting out of hand, Joe perhaps conveniently discerns the signal he needs to depart. The journey commences, replete with pursuing media and copious junk food – rather reminiscent of some of the adventures of a notorious big city mayor we’re all too familiar with these days. Joe’s journey, however, even includes some meaningful if fleeting human connections – connections with people more endearingly and sympathetically sketched than Joe himself. Joe arrives at what is presumably the polar opposite of his slick, fast-paced Manhattan life, a remote ranch/resort in Montana.

Or has Joe really found the dramatic change of scenery that is supposed to symbolize the significant … whatever … it is he’s seeking or craving? For a time at least, Joe works with his hands – peeling apples in the resort kitchen – rather than his head. That sojourn from his own fevered brain is short-lived, though, and it turns out the Montana ranch is as much in perceived need of branding – you know, to take the place to the next level – as any of the products for which Joe built identities when he was thriving, however shallowly, in Manhattan. While a dire turn of events for Joe’s search for whatever he’s searching for, it’s a great satirical turn in the novel.

It’s a wonderful and fortuitous coincidence that this reviewer came to be reading Waiting for the Man one day while listening to a radio in the background tuned to popular CBC Radio program Terry O’Reilly’s Under the Influence. Much of O’Reilly’s examination of the mechanics of how modern advertising and branding works, and how those mechanics sink their talons into consumers’ emotions and psyches, is in glorious play in Joe’s musings.

You’d be hard pressed to pick one @arjunbasu Twister as the best of them all (although the recent “We’d been to karaoke the night before I lost my job. Was it my singing? Or maybe the gun I’d found. In my boss’s purse. On my bedroom floor.” is a zinger). Similarly, it’s nigh impossible to pull a definitive quote from what is the most compelling aspect of Waiting For the Man – its entrancingly paced and parsed words. The book is rich with well-crafted sentences that have benefited from the rigour with which Basu creates his tweet-length stories. There is a tight, potent economy of expression throughout.

But are you going to feel a connection to Joe? Is it even critical to feel that to derive measures of satisfaction and meaning from Waiting for the Man? This reviewer is not dismissing the main character because he’s slightly off-putting, suspect and perhaps unbelievable – rather, very much crediting him because he’s slightly off-putting, suspect and decidedly believable. He’s us, desensitized by and rendered somewhat helpless under the cloud of branding and digital everything under which we live these days. He’s not quite the cipher of Chance the Gardener from the Jerzy Kosinski novel and movie Being There, but Joe is someone onto whom we can to some extent imprint our own disillusionment and dysphoria.

There’s this …

Deep in my heart I was doubting myself completely, but I could not bring myself to admit this. I could admit that the trip was a cheap spectacle cooked up by the media to fill some minutes during the summer’s newcasts. To Dan, the prize came at the conclusion of the journey. The event only had purpose at its conclusion. To me, this ordeal was a path to the start of a new journey. A new life. That’s what I had hoped.

… but then, right at the end, there’s this …

I may have felt freedom. I’m not sure.

Oh, Joe is us all right. He’s irritating and his fate is inconclusive, but we can totally relate.

Learn more about Waiting for the Man, by Arjun Basu

Waiting for the Man in ECW Press book catalogue, including excerpt

Waiting for the Man book trailer

See also:

  • Book Review | Waiting For The Man by Arjun Basu
    reviewed by Lynne for Words of Mystery
    Joe is just your average guy who like several people feels overworked and burned out. One night he has a dream of a man who tells him that he is waiting for him, and it is that one thing that causes him to leave his job and home in search of this mysterious man. What follows is more than just a story of one man’s journey …

  • Arjun Basu’s Waiting for the Man (2014)
    reviewed in Buried In Print
    “We crave narrative,” Joe tells us.
    And the Reader who picks up Arjun Basu’s Waiting for the Man nods: a narrative craver.

  • Waiting for the Man – Interview with Author Arjun Basu
    by Katherine Krige for A New Day
    Joe is a cynic and his journey isn’t easy. For one, there is a mini van. And lots of bad pizza. Showers and sleep are minimal … Sounds like the making of any great adventure, right?

  • Review: Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu
    by Alessandra in The Book Stylist
    Joe’s journey is a mental one, where he establishes an acute and cynical awareness about the world we live in, a world that is pockmarked in ruts and rigged like bear traps for the unsuspecting.

  • Waiting For The Man – Arjun Basu – Review AND Giveaway
    by Luanne in A Bookworm’s World
    Basu has crafted an unsettling, thought provoking first novel, one sure to leave you taking a second look at many aspects of our society and our own lives.

  • Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu
    reviewed by Heather Cromarty for Quill & Quire
    At an historical moment when everyone demands to be perceived as special and kids grow up wanting only to be famous, Montreal writer Arjun Basu’s debut novel ponders the possibility of escaping the ennui of modern life, where the safe, corporate dream jobs of our parents don’t offer the expected fulfillment.

Thank you to ECW Press for providing a review copy of Waiting for the Man by Arjun Basu.

Book traffic report #3

Flying books

In this household brimming with books, we’re continuing to take a year-long look at how books make their way into (and out of) this place. Three months in, things are getting very interesting. I’ve decided to categorize the incoming and outgoing books in some additional ways.

At the end of March, the two columns on my home office whiteboard tallied up as follows:

Incoming: 17

  • 17 paper books / 0 digital books
  • 9 purchased / 7 received / 1 borrowed from the library
  • Of the 9 books purchased, 6 were purchased online and three were purchased in stores or in-person transactions (Book City, Ben McNally’s and directly from an author at a reading).
  • All 7 received books were complementary copies from publishers or authors.

I’ve observed from the outset that I’d like to see more of our purchases taking place in physical bookstores, where possible. I confess I’m a bit surprised that our online purchases are still as high as they are, but I’ll point out that two of those purchases were for rare books obtained from non-Amazon vendors’ web sites.

Outgoing: 16

  • 15 outgoing books were contributed to three local Little Free Library boxes.
  • One tattered, outdated technical reference book was consigned to the recycling bin.

2014 to date: 34 books incoming, 47 books outgoing

I’ve added some new categories by which I’m going to track incoming and outgoing books. First, I’m going to note whether a book is read (by my husband or me) or not yet read at the time I tally things up each month. Obviously, a new incoming book is likely to be unread initially, but I’m interested to see how many of those books are read by the end of the year. Also, how many books are we sending back out into the world that no one in this household got around to reading?

So far this year, a total of 14 incoming books are read and 20 are unread, and a total of 35 outgoing books have been read … and 12 books that have lived in this house unread are now back out in the world, presumably to join a household where they will be read.

I’ve also categorized incoming and outgoing books as fiction, non-fiction (including reference) and poetry.

So far this year, 23 fiction, 7 non-fiction and 4 poetry books have arrived, and 21 fiction, 24 non-fiction and 2 poetry books have departed.

Our outgoing numbers continue to illustrate that we have an abiding affection for our local Little Free Library boxes.

Let’s see how the books fly back and forth this upcoming month!

Flying books image from

Canada Reads 2014 – refreshed, inspired, re-energized

Canada Reads

This was a palate cleanser year for me with respect to Canada Reads, an annual Canadian literary event I’ve followed regularly since its inception in 2002. (Here’s a handy summary of the books, book defenders, moderators and more, including the parallel lineups for the French language equivalent, Le Combat des livres.) I’ve been most engaged in the books, the discussions and the featured debates since 2011, the year the event was extended to invite more online participation.

Perhaps I’ve been so engaged since then that I’ll admit, I experienced a touch of Canada Reads fatigue going into the ramp-up to this year’s debates. I’d mused a year earlier …

“… you know, part of me wishes I could go into the debate one of these times to be convinced without having read any of them, or to test with some purity whether the debates stand on their own as a truly useful way of being introduced to the books. Of course, the debates can’t help but be predicated on some beforehand knowledge of the books and authors. Anyhow, it’s not how Canada Reads books have come to be marketed nowadays, is it? The five-book packages and bookstore displays started in November, and we’re meant to respond. Still, don’t you think it’d be an interesting approach to learning about the books to intentionally go in blind one year?” (from Some thoughts on Canada Reads Eve [February 9, 2013])

So, that’s what I did this year.

Taking this approach, I went into the debates feeling refreshed, with some new perspectives and very curious to see how the celebrity defenders were going to do their jobs. I’ll also admit that I emerged from the 2014 Canada Reads debates feeling entertained, challenged and energized, having had my thoughts about the contending books and subject matter provoked in all sorts of positive ways.

Bearing in mind that Canada Reads is not just a battle of books, but the alchemy of theme, book, defender, strategy and a dollop or two of the unexpected, the 2014 edition delivered … and some. The two final defenders – Wab Kinew, championing Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and Samantha Bee, championing Rawi Hage’s Cockroach – were two of the most determined, articulate, well prepared and quick thinking combatants the program has ever seen (Bee’s periodic dips into weepiness notwithstanding). Add to that the eminence, eloquence, gravitas and revelatory humour of statesman Stephen Lewis, and the program boasted some of the most balanced, respectful and riveting Canada Reads exchanges ever, such as the Kinew-Lewis debate about violence and torture in The Orenda.

You could almost put aside the books here and argue that the arguments themselves were the most potent and inspiring aspects of this year’s program.

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

Interestingly, the tenacity with which the book/defender combination of Bee/Cockroach made it to the final round had me the most intrigued throughout. That’s the Canada Reads finalist book I’m going to read first, based on both Samantha Bee’s spirited and resourceful defence, as well my friend Paul Whelan’s great review.

Suggestions for next year? On the basis of the invigorating discussions this year, I know I’ll be interested again in 2015, and would love to submit the following ideas for consideration:

  1. Thematic idea #1 How about an examination of indelible characters in Canadian literature that all Canadians should get to know … but not the usual suspects, like Anne of Green Gables or Duddy Kravitz? I’d nominate the likes of Maggie Lloyd from Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel, Desmond Howl from Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music, Sheilagh Fielding from Wayne Johnston’s The Custodian of Paradise or Egg from Tamai Kobayashi’s Prairie Ostrich.

  2. Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

  3. Thematic idea #2 How about books that will introduce you to the complete works of (perhaps) underappreciated or unknown authors, or authors that have slipped a bit below the CanLit radar? How about selections from the works of Barbara Gowdy, Matt Cohen, Robertson Davies or Judith Merril, for example?

  4. Host/moderator The inaugural Canada Reads in 2002 was moderated by actor/comedian Mary Walsh. For the next five years, Canada Reads was moderated by author and broadcaster Bill Richardson. For the last seven years, Jian Ghomeshi has helmed the program. Is it maybe time to give Jian a well-deserved break and seek a change in the moderator’s chair? (Heck, if he is reluctant to completely disengage, Jian could probably be an able book defender.) While there are already calls for him for Prime Minister, a good interim role for Wab Kinew might be as an incisive and astute moderator who would bring an informed sensibility to the proceedings. His impressive acumen in this year’s Canada Reads proceedings was enhanced by his overall preparedness and knowledge of all of the books, and his ability to respect his opponents without being either hostile or overly ingratiating. I think he could manage a future Canada Reads competition with equanimity and aplomb. Just a thought …

See also:

Post-mortem: Canada Reads 2014, by Allegra Young

Spending time most gloriously with 500 poets and poetry translators

Gathered at another table

A year ago, the table welcomed 300 poets and translators. A year later, 200 more poets and translators have joined the festive gathering, making for some interesting shuffling in the seating arrangements, to say the least. Are Helen Adam and Fleur Adcock having a surprising meeting of minds? How about ee cummings and Nancy Jo Cullen … or Edna St Vincent Millay and Joe Strummer? Anselm Berrigan is now next to his father, Ted, and his mother Alice Notley is further down on the other side, engrossed in conversation with Idra Novey. We trust Helen Guri and Jason Guriel will have no mishaps with wine glasses or cutlery …

I’ve been tweeting a #todayspoem tweet every day since December 26, 2011, inspired by this. In addition to revisiting and going deeper in my own poetry collection, #todayspoem has compelled me to go further afield in print and online, and my daily tweets have reflected both my own explorations and those sparked by other generous and eclectic #todayspoem contributors. While I continue to imagine what this 500 poets and translators I’ve tweeted would have to say to each other if I sat them at a table … again, I’m fantasizing about the new guests who will be joining them in the days, weeks and months to come.

The following are links to more information about each of the unique poets and translators from whose work I’ve tweeted in a little over two years – personal web sites, articles, interviews, essays, biographies and bibliographies. I kind of hope that these might be starting points for others to explore these artists, too. The excerpts from their work that I incorporated into #todayspoem tweets are saved as part of the Today’s Poem Pinterest board.

Tea table image from

Book traffic report #2

Stack of books

As I’ve mentioned, we here in this household overflowing with books have launched a year-long look at how books make their way into (and out of) this place. We’re now two months into the exercise and we’re not only learning some interesting things about our book acquisition and sharing behaviours, but I think this added awareness might be influencing us, at least a bit.

At the end of February, the two columns on my home office whiteboard tallied up as follows:

Incoming: 9

  • 9 paper books / 0 digital books
  • 2 purchased / 7 received or received as gifts
  • Of the 2 books purchased, one was purchased online and one was special ordered via and purchased in a bookstore (Book City)
  • 5 of the 7 received books were complementary copies from publishers or authors
  • 1 book that had been loaned to a friend was returned.

I observed last month that I’d like to see more of our purchases taking place in physical bookstores, where possible. So, we paid more attention to that this month, and I’d like to continue to do that in future.

Outgoing: 16

2014 to date: 17 books incoming, 31 books outgoing

Not sure if there is much to conclude this early on, but I do want to keep up the Little Free Library habit (maybe it’s time for us to get a box of our own, either at home or hmm, maybe up at the cottage …?) and I also want to be mindful of purchasing at and supporting our bookstores. I admit the outgoing book figure surprises me a bit, but then my husband commented that he’s surprised at how many books are still coming in …!

I mentioned before that I am keeping track of the titles coming in and going out, but am not specifically listing them in my reports here. (No one gave an opinion either way about me mentioning titles.) With outgoing books in particular, I’ve wondered if mentioning the titles might make it look like we’re rejecting or kicking perfectly fine books out of our house. Again, I note that some of the books we’ve taken to Little Free Library boxes are reading and/or paperback copies of books we’ve since purchased in hardcover and/or in first editions. In some cases, the books were on specific subject matter and have grown out of date or usefulness. In some cases, admittedly, there are books we’ve relinquished that we don’t expect to revisit, to put it carefully. As I said previously, that doesn’t mean that someone else might not happily welcome them and add them to the “incoming” column in their households. (In fact, when I check our neighbourhood Little Free Library boxes to which we’ve donated, I’m also kind of happy to see that our books have departed.)

Book stack image from

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

I’m excited to introduce Bookgaga readers to another insightful guest book reviewer who comes at things from some intriguing angles. Paul Whelan, over to you: I am an architect whose worldview has been shaped by a belief that cities and buildings are active participants in our real and imagined lives. My reading is evenly split between fiction and non-fiction, but usually underpinned by my deep love of human history.

Cockroach, by Rawi Hage

A book titled Cockroach almost begs the reader to embark on an insect-metaphor hunt. And there are many here to find. If you are the type of reader who wants to make connections between for example Kafka and derogatory racial profiling, it’s all here for the counting. But for me there was so much more to this engaging novel. I read it twice as the combination of character, story and language aligned to keep me off-balance, but eagerly stumbling forward.

The nameless main character is simultaneously off-putting and endearing. His childlike attitude towards his shoplifting and break and enter crimes seems devoid of conventional morality. He oscillates from compelling observations of his adopted city through to being weirdly off-putting. Regardless I wanted him to succeed in his seductions and his crimes. I never lost interest in his interactions with Montreal and its inhabitants.

Cockroach inhabits a city that operates under rules that are invisible to him. His judgment of the naïveté of those around him is equal to his own unexamined naïveté. He coolly exposes the false posturing of both his fellow-immigrants and the soft lives of the Montreal well-to-do. Rawi Hage creates passages of power and beauty such as the hero’s musings on his state-appointed psychiatrist.

“She was quiet and I knew she wanted to ask me if I had killed Tony once I had the gun. I knew she was hooked, intrigued. Simple woman. I thought. Gentle, educated, but naïve, she is sheltered by glaciers and prairies, thick forests, oceans and dancing seals.”

Cockroach’s hero has experienced a far harsher world and has little patience for the morality of the well-fed.

Hage’s novel maintains a tight relationship to the viscera of Montreal. The reader is kept in constant contact with the ice and slush of winter, the hunger before the next welfare check and incessant sexual longing. The hero is desperately in touch with his physicality and is deeply grateful for every scrap of food or sexual encounter. Even his break-ins seem tempered by seeming simpler needs. He takes what he wants based on his assessment of the inhabitants, but mostly food and information.

What I have avoided writing about is the plot. For most of the novel I simply read along for the ride. I was equally intrigued by the hero’s direct pleasure from life and the inexorable unfolding of his story, which skirts around all the great issues – hunger, sex, love and revenge. But there is a great story here that slips through the entrails of Montreal and all its inhabitants.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Paul is the fifth and final – to review the contending books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

I’m very pleased to welcome another terrific guest book reviewer with some fresh perspectives to the Bookgaga blog. Over to Rebecca Hansford, who will introduce herself: I am an undergraduate student at Queen’s University, completing my final year in Biology and Psychology. I am currently conducting a thesis, examining how lakes change over time due to climate-related issues. Majoring in science instead of English was a tough choice for me as I have an electric passion for reading. I particularly enjoy fiction that integrates scientific facts, environmental issues and dystopian societies.

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood tells the brilliant story of two contrasting women’s survival in a rapidly deconstructing society. The characters’ surroundings are devastating but familiar, a world focused on consumerism, flashy products and unnatural gene splicing. Humans have destroyed the environment and the government has a tyrannical hold over the population. However, the general population is so obsessed with consumption that little attention is given to the political chokehold.

From this corrupt and unnatural society, a small religion of naturalists emerges, the Gardeners. The Gardeners promote vegetarianism and minimalist life choices despite the current society’s focus on consumerism and unnatural product obsessions. At first glance, the Gardeners’ society seem to be a modern-day garden of Eden, however, by delving into two distinct narratives, Atwood exposes both the negative and positive aspects of this religion while telling the story of the Gardeners’ response to the impending doom of the Waterless flood.

Atwood jumps effortless between narratives and time describing the lives of the Gardener women, before and after the Waterless Flood. The juxtaposition of the two women’s characters is remarkable. Toby is a hardwired, strong woman, who learns to fend for herself at an early age. By using third person, Atwood distances the reader from the slightly closed off character. In contrast, Ren is an open, resilient but slightly dependent character. Ren’s narrative is first person and begins when she is a young child, giving the reader an easier connection to this character. The changing narrative is wonderfully done and keeps the reader engaged. Atwood also describes the Gardeners’ prayers, enabling the reader to see into this interesting religion.

By demonstrating Gardener prayers in addition to each woman’s view of the religion, the reader gains three perspectives into the Gardener religion. As a treat, the reader also gets a taste of Atwood’s renowned poetry as Atwood threads religious symbolism seamlessly into the novel. Using these prayers, Atwood comments on organized religion by emphasizing the positive, natural aspects while highlighting the problems and hypocrisy within its organization.

The Year of the Flood poses interesting questions regarding the current technology and economy focused society. In a world of gene-splicing, questionable medicine and secret-meat burgers, how far can society depart from the natural world before it becomes detrimental to human society? Atwood makes the reader question the society’s focus on playing God, while making us wonder if our society has also crossed this line. Atwood reinforces the inconvenient truth that current lifestyle choices are leading to a disaster of global scale and asks the reader if our society will also have to face the consequences of our consumerist actions one day.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Rebecca is the fourth – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

I’m really thrilled to introduce Bookgaga blog visitors to another wise and diligent guest book reviewer. Sue Reynolds is a life-long reader and animal lover whose sudden, passionate love for Bette Davis movies threatens to consume all of her reading time.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood Blues has won or been shortlisted for an impressive array of prestigious awards since its publication in 2011. It won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, to name a few. The great success of the book has generated countless descriptions and reviews, both in print and online. In the interest of taking a different approach, the Bookgaga kindly suggested that my review might take the Canada Reads theme into consideration.

Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s second novel, moves back and forth between Berlin and Paris in 1939-40, and Berlin and Poland in 1992. Its action revolves around a jazz band, the Hot-Times Swingers, which is composed of black and white musicians from the United States and Europe. With World War II looming on the horizon and harassment of “undesirables” (band members Chip and Hiero are both dark-skinned black men, Paul is a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew) becoming increasingly violent, the Hot-Times Swingers flee Berlin for Paris, partly to escape the worsening situation in Berlin, partly to meet and record with Louis Armstrong.

Edugyan smoothly moves from the drama of the Swingers, their interpersonal tensions, artistic struggles and more serious challenges of avoiding the Nazi presence in Berlin and Paris, to future scenes with the surviving members, years later, who are now old men. The 1992 sections of the novel feel almost like a detective story, as Sid, our elderly narrator, and his best friend, Chip, travel to Berlin and Poland in search of Hiero, the genius trumpeter, assumed killed during the war but alive and living in obscurity.

Canada Reads asks: what is the one novel that could change Canada, that Canadians can look to for inspiration? That will compel Canadians to make a change in their lives, at home or at work, in their community, in their country or around the world? Although the bulk of Half-Blood Blues takes place on the world stage with the horrors of World War II as a backdrop, the novel has an intimate and personal feel to it. We are witness to the creative process that Sid and his bandmates live for and we watch Sid’s infatuation with jazz singer Delilah Brown play itself out.

Half-Blood Blues works its magic, not necessarily through its story, but in how it tells that story. Edugyan conveys the mysteries of jazz music through her use of the written word:

“Kid wasn’t even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with a unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, this barely held-in chaos, and Hiero hisself was the lid.

…I might’ve been crying. It was the sound of something growing a crust, some watery thing finally gelling. The very sound of age, of growing older, of adolescent rage being tempered by a man’s heart. Yeah, that was it. It was the sound of the kid’s coming of age. As if he taken on some of old Armstrong’s colossal sadness.” (p. 278)

Whether Edugyan is describing the freedom found in creating music or the chaos of thousands of panicked Parisians trying to flee their occupied city, her prose sings and reminds us that we are interacting with a living, breathing language. This, I think, is her gift to her readers: she calls attention to the musical, evocative beauty of the English language, how it can be bent and twisted to do the writer’s bidding.

Should all of Canada read Half-Blood Blues we may end up with a nation of book-lovers who have decided to read aloud, the better to hear the music embedded in every text they open.

Note: I’m approaching my preparations for Canada Reads 2014 a little differently than previous years. This year, I’m not reading and reviewing the books in advance of the debates. Instead, I’ve asked five wise and articulate readers – of whom Sue is the third – to review the finalist books and convince me one way or the other of the value of the book and its suitability for this year’s Canada Reads theme of “What is the one book that could change Canada?”

Book traffic report #1

We here in this book-crammed household have launched a year-long look at how books make their way into (and out of) this place. We’re one month into the exercise and learning some interesting things about our book acquisition and sharing behaviours.

At the end of January, the two columns on my home office whiteboard tallied up as follows:

Incoming: 8

  • 6 paper books / 2 digital books
  • 4 purchased / 4 received or received as gifts
  • Of the 4 books purchased, all were purchased online. (Hmm …)
  • 3 of the 4 received books were complementary copies from publishers or authors.

In light of the recently announced closing of another beloved bookstore here in Toronto, I’d like to see more of our purchases taking place in physical bookstores, where possible. Just so happens that on the very last day of January, my husband came home and mentioned that he stopped in a bookstore on the way home from work, looked for but didn’t find a desired book … and took the bookstore up on their offer to order it for him, rather than coming home and plunking down in front of to purchase it.

Outgoing: 15

Getting an assist with the outgoing book traffic …

Making a delivery at a Little Free Library box

Twitter book friend Regina Marler commented on our outgoing book traffic:

The exercise so far has made us very conscious of the books we’re contributing and sharing as much as what we’re acquiring and consuming. It’ll be interesting to see how this changes as we continue monitoring our book traffic. I do find myself deliberately taking extra books when I go out to run errands or go somewhere on public transit, so I can drop books off in local Little Free Library boxes.

I am keeping track of the titles coming in and going out, but wasn’t sure if I should specifically list them in my reports here. (Do you think I should mention them?) With outgoing books in particular, I wonder if mentioning the titles might make it look like we’re rejecting or kicking perfectly fine books out of our house. I note that some of the books we’ve taken to Little Free Library boxes are reading and/or paperback copies of books we’ve since purchased in hardcover and/or in first editions. In some cases, the books were on specific subject matter and have grown out of date or usefulness. In some cases, admittedly, there are books we’ve relinquished that we don’t expect to revisit, to put it carefully. That doesn’t mean that someone else might not happily welcome them and add them to the “incoming” column in their households.